“How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”
Daryl Davis, an African-American jazz musician, has attempted to answer that question by meeting and befriending members of the Klu Klux Klan since the 1990s. Several KKK members that came to know him eventually renounced racism.
“Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America” explores Davis’ philosophy as he travels across the United States, encountering KKK and Neo-Nazi members, civil rights activists and his supporters and critics. Directed by Matt Ornstein, it’s a soulful documentary that is as heartwarming as it is thoughtful.
Davis is an affable guy who’s had the honor of playing alongside rock n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry – and found himself in the good graces of high-ranking KKK officials. A lot of people would find that a strange position for any black person to be in, but Davis doesn’t seem to think so. He believes that if he sits down, lends racists an ear and allows them to speak their mind, then they will do the same for him.
Ornstein illustrates that Davis might be onto something by interviewing Davis’ KKK friends, some of whom are still members. In spite of their beliefs, they shake Davis’ hand, they joke and laugh with him, and they welcome him into their homes. Davis brings out their humanity, peeling back the layers of hatred that form their ideology and discovering the kindness that lies beneath. It’s funny and beautiful to see Davis and a robed Grand Dragon beside each other, all smiles.
“Accidental Courtesy” delves into Davis’ motivation for his work. His family traveled the world when he was young, bringing him into contact with a variety of cultures and peoples who many different skin colors. Racism was an alien concept to him when he returned to the U.S at an older age. Davis was later exposed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and he came to see the importance of civil rights work. Ornstein’s focus on Davis’ past imbues “Accidental Courtesy” with an inviting intimacy – we get to know him, and he, in many ways, embodies MLK’s ideal of the black man who can walk hand in hand with a white one.
Ornstein and Davis also address police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, visiting Baltimore to meet activists. One is a former Baltimore police officer who left the force after witnessing systemic racism. Another is a black activist who confronts Davis and fiercely condemns his work, arguing that befriending KKK members does nothing to help black people themselves.
Davis’ journey demonstrates that ignorance and spitefulness aren’t just traits of racists. He meets civil rights activists who view members of the KKK as irredeemably evil. Others see racists as redeemable, but are unwilling to associate with them. Davis argues they are wrong: if activists want to change the viewpoints of others, they can’t continually speak to each other about what they’ve already agreed upon – they must try to understand the people with whom they haven’t.
“Accidental Courtesy” leaves it up to us to decide whether Davis is right or wrong. Some may finish the film buying his message of friendship; some will start the movie seeing him as a crackpot and they’ll finish it feeling the same. No one can deny, though, that his heart is in the right place.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Score: 5/5 stars