Daryl Davis is on a mission to stop white supremacy….by being friends with Ku Klux Klan Members. In the 2016 documentary, Accidental Courtesy, his lifelong journey – from cosmopolitan child living abroad to prolific boogie-woogie musician and teacher to racist rehabilitator and Klan Robe Kollector – is brought to light. And, like W. Kamau Bell’s forays into Racist Dens Of Inequity, it’s about as odd, infuriating and perplexing as it sounds.
At first, Accidental Courtesy builds Davis up as this folksy and unlikely hero: using his nearly race-blind upbringing abroad, Daryl has an innate sense of people’s humanity. Much like Obama – according to Ta-Nehisi Coates at least – Davis has an overwhelming imperative to give people, in this case racist white people, the benefit of the doubt when understanding them. After a chance encounter with a klansmen who saw him play at a bar, Daryl begins his crusade with a simple idea: if klansmen simply knew Daryl Davis, The Black Man, is a good guy, wouldn’t they realize maybe all black people aren’t the hypersexed, hyperlazy scum of the earth their doctrines teach them we are?
At first, the film seems to vindicate this theory. We get dramatic stories of budding, if not tenuous, “friendships” that Davis has developed with multiple klansmen, whose meticulously embroidered robes Davis collects as trophies. In fact, an entire scene is dedicated to the dozens of robes and racist paraphernalia Davis has collected from his “friends,” of which he plans to make a museum out of some day. While I personally feel all that shit is surely summoning souls of Southern Good Ole Boys to Davis’ house for a zombie jamboree, who am I to judge?
Which is definitely a question Accidental Courtesy also poses via inference through its first half. Who are we, passive filmgoers, to judge this guy who’s doing the work or at least, some kind of work, on the ground? Well, it’s not that simple. And the film slowly threads through that needle with you. In particular, Accidental Courtesy effortlessly intercuts Davis’ near-boasting of his record converting klansmen with clips of his late 80’s/early 90’s appearances on TV with them, pre-conversion and when he was courting them. One juicy sequence involves a klansmen calling white reporters “nigger lovers” in the same breath that he says he’d fight any day, any where with Davis because that’s his “brother” and he respects him.
Boy, oh boy.
There’s nothing more uncomfortable than jumping from these moments to Davis sitting next to an “ex” klansman, years later, seemingly without any cognitive dissonance. From strange racial jokes to the klansman’s clear (badly hidden) racism, Davis sits through it all, choosing to take the “let’s logically talk this out,” route that is the cornerstone of his…activism. Granted, it doesn’t always work. But the film shows more wins than losses early on to illustrate his larger-than-life persona.
To hear him say it, Davis effectively shut down active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in the DMV area by befriending three of its leaders. (This is challenged later in the film, but I digress.) But if we’ve learned anything from the last 10 years, it’s that the death of a public institution doesn’t necessarily mean the death of its ideals or membership. More often than not, these groups just rebrand and re-assume power in other ways.
Take the Tea Party for example, which rose out of the ashes of Reagan’s promises to America. A toxic mix of nativism, “economic angst,” secret emails with racist jokes about Obama, a certain level of financial security and free time amongst white baby boomers and a slew of euphemisms for “the acts and thoughts of racists” led to a radical movement that has effectively been institutionalized, with federal and state representatives. The Klan is no different. With Charlottesville being the fresh wound etched into the skin of popular discourse, it’s clear that the Internet gave the pantheon of white power movements – both emergent and old guard – the clandestine meeting spaces they needed to regroup and react like a milk-drinking Sauron surveying Mordor.
To avoid being ahistorical, Davis has done a lot of work and his achievements are achievements…of some kind. But there’s more than enough evidence to argue they aren’t enough, nor are they necessarily effective in the broader context. Or, even remotely the absolute answer to racism.
Accidental Courtesy tips into this, specifically when it comes to black youth leadership and movements, when Davis comes to Baltimore in the wake of its uprising in 2015. In a heated discussion between some young activists who were on the ground, Davis’ ethos of “talk it out and let them enjoy the benefit of the doubt” is directly challenged. Facing police violence and intimidation, two young men, Kwame Rose and Tariq Toure, question the logic of debating their humanity with people whose entire ideology involves direct and indirect violence to their being. Moreover, they question Davis’ seeming obsession with ingratiating these racists to himself, with Rose pointedly stating “[i]nfiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people.”
It’s in this moment that we see the benevolent façade fall for the first time with Davis. Like a couched professor flustered by the insubordination of a student, Davis resorts to condescension when his tried and true dialogue doesn’t work. In reply, Rose and Toure give him swift dressing downs and walk out. JC Faulk, a BLM organizer, then enters and berates Davis for his lack of respect. How, he asks, can Davis come to Baltimore – their home, not his – and speak to them as though he knows them or the traumas they’ve dealt with on the ground? Further, how can Davis have the hubris to treat them as less than and defend these white racists he holds so dear?
It’s a tense bit of filmmaking that’s no filler and is probably the most poignant sequence of the entire documentary. It throws Davis’ singular mission into a complex, inter-generational context wherein we see classism, ageism and binary approaches to activism that plague ‘the movement’ at large and in our bedrooms, living rooms and family gatherings.
The film ends in a bifurcation of sorts. On one hand, the documentary’s narrative winds down with Davis returning to DC to show another “friend” the unmarked spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. However, Accidental Courtesy’s formal runtime ends with Davis commenting on the potential election of Donald Trump. It’s a smart closing that ties up the episodic idea of Accidental Courtesy without trying to put a pin in the ongoing narrative of racial politics and relations in the country.
In light of recent events, Accidental Courtesy feels like the profile of a man who’s held steadfast to an ideal that is as dead as it is offbeat in the cacophonic orchestra of racial relations in today’s world. To the Baltimore protesters’ point: the danger is here and now, and there are no logical, level-headed debates with people who want to kill you. While Davis’ efforts can be respected it, it’s hard to say he (and his actions) don’t look funny in the light when you watch a car – driven by a white nationalist/separatist/nazi/racist/etc – plow its way into a crowd.
How do you even entertain such conversations with people who are more than willing to kill you in broad daylight, let alone in secrecy? And to that end, who knows what crimes his “friends” committed before (or after) giving up the ghost of Klansman’s Past with him? Whatever reasons Davis has to negotiate those dissonances is a question Accidentally Courtesy tries to implicitly answer, but never investigates with hard-nosed fervor. It’s a problem endemic to this kind of “live in the skin,” “give them a chance to make a fool of themselves” journalism and efforts – specifically by people of color, and black men in particular. The drama and trauma of knowing that were it not for these cameras, most of these people would be in grave danger when encountering extremists, is inherent and unsettling.
But there’s also a lack of payoff: there is no retribution for their crimes (admitted or implied.) Rather, the subject gets a broader platform to dog-whistle to potentials. And, the only punishment is a trademarked coastal-liberal-elite moment of humor, or satirical takes on their decided lack of clear-headed intelligence, enjoyed between the host and “better minds.” For, who in their right mind would think that any one race is better or more worthy of humanity than another? And man, look at these goofy robes!
The danger in this is that, through elitist condescension and what may pass as a need to calm our own personal fears, we write off the very real reality that these people – from well-branded, slickly produced edgelords on the Internet to grimey, downhome nazis who look like Larry The Cable Guy – are very serious and logical about their approaches, even when they’re clearly pundit muppets, like Tommen Lahren.
They may not want the harsh, easily identifiable labels of “nazi,” “racist” and whatnot (after all, it’s not marketable to the wider audience of self-serious people who think America’s really just a meritocracy and maybe black people just complain about race too much.) But there’s no humor in the fact that they fit the bill, and that there are very real consequences of giving them a platform and not treating them as who they are: politically and physically violent factions whose rhetoric specifically targets non-white peoples, among others.
Of course, no one wants to have that discussion. Because dining with white supremacists and normalizing their seat at the figurative and literal table in popular discourse, is great TV. Because c’mon ya’ll: nothing says engrossing, “edgy” television like the human side of people whose entire political foundation is the dehumanization of others, yeah? So, perhaps it’s a discussion best left to the moments left watching the credits, as we scroll through our phones at chilling images of men whom Daryl Davis would try to convert, if he could.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter