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Film Review: ‘Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America’

A black musician's unique approach to ending racial prejudice is the subject of Matt Ornstein's doc.

Courtesy of SXSW

A veteran African-American rock and blues musician, Daryl Davis has for some years pursued a side interest that strikes many as perverse, if not downright dangerous: He seeks out members of the KKK and other race-oriented hate groups, using personal friendship, generosity, historical argument and simple logic to challenge their prejudices. Working on this one-on-one level, he’s proved (in his own words) that “it is possible that change can occur” between seemingly irreconcilable people. Well timed for an election year even more charged with divisive rhetoric than usual, “Accidental Courtesy” offers an entertaining and inspirational message of rapprochement with the potential to appeal beyond the fest circuit to select broadcast and niche theatrical buyers.

Though his career is not the focus here (and we see him performing just a couple of times), Davis is a boogie-woogie pianist who, since the 1980s, has played with such classic “oldies” acts as Chuck Berry, the Platters, Bo Diddley, the Jordanaires, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Drifters. These days he headlines the Daryl Davis Band, and has released several albums of his own. (He’s also done some stage and screen acting that goes unmentioned here.) But he may be better known still for his long association with a subject that has yielded a book (“Klan-Destine Relationships”), a busy lecturing schedule and considerable press coverage.

Born in Chicago but raised in globe-trotting fashion (his father was a diplomat), Davis somehow managed to be oblivious to the notion of racism until he was 10 years old, as related here. At that point he was chosen to carry the flag for an otherwise all-white Cub Scouts group in a parade; it had to be explained to him why some bystanders threw trash at him.

As a young adult early in his music career, he briefly played with a country-western band, and when a complimentary audience member offered to buy him a drink, he noted that he’d never actually socialized with a black person before. It turned out that man was a Ku Klux Klan member, and in applying the question “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” to this new acquaintance, Davis had his first experience of eroding another person’s racial prejudices simply by talking him out of them.

Since then, he’s developed relationships with some leaders of the KKK, neo-Nazi groups and other “white power” organizations. En route he’s collected a garage-full of ceremonial robes (complete with identity-hiding pointed hood) discarded by such friends who no longer hold their prejudicial beliefs, in large part thanks to him. (He hopes to open a museum some day for said artifacts.) Such success testifies to the wisdom of his belief that “preaching to the choir” accomplishes little compared to “inviting somebody to the table who disagrees with you … then figur(ing) out a solution to dissuade their fears.” At least one entire state wound up no longer having KKK chapters after Davis “converted” their leadership.

Of course, not everyone is willing to listen: We meet one Pastor Thomas Robb, the KKK’s national director, and the kind of racist blowhard who shuts his ears toward anything that contradicts his biases. Other figures Davis has achieved long-term friendships with, yet only modified their racial views — sometimes they seem willing only to make a personal exception for him. Still, any progress is good. Spokespeople from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which litigates against perceived hate groups, view Davis’ efforts as well intentioned, but kinder and gentler than such people deserve.

The most hostile response he gets here, however, are from African-American Black Lives Matters activists in Baltimore, who angrily dismiss his mission as “a fetish” and a waste of time that should have been spent improving his own community. “Infilitrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people,” they say before stomping out. But isn’t cutting off hate and ignorance at the individual-source level as legitimate a way of ending oppression as any? After all, it’s almost inevitable that those who think blacks (or gays, or Muslims, or whoever) are “the problem” don’t actually know any, getting their biases from inflammatory rhetoric and stereotypes. As the pic quotes Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

The differing responses “Accidental Courtesy” is likely to evoke in viewers make it a great conversation-starter for public and educational forums. Director Matt Ornstein’s first feature (his company Sound & Vision primarily produces music videos) is lively and accessible, with packaging that’s pro without being over-slick.

Film Review: ‘Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 9, 2016. (In SXSW Film Festival — competing.) Running time: <strong>98 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Sound & Vision production, in association with Lodger Films. Produced by Noah Ornstein, Matt Ornstein. Executive producers, Laurie Harris, Roberto Alcantara. Co-producers, Jason Jones, Ben Barnes.
  • Crew: Directed by Matt Ornstein. Camera (color, HD), Sam Gezari, Pete Castagnetti; editors, Jason Jones, Ben Barnes; sound, Todd Burger, Al Faison, Matt Benda, Andy Giner, re-recording mixers, Michael Solano, Ryan Owens.
  • With: Daryl Davis, Virginia Ali, Mark Potok, Rachel Pendergraft, Thomas Robb, Jeff Schoep, Frank Ancona, Faith Morris, Michael A. Wood Jr., Kwame Rose, Tariq Toure, JC Faulk, Scott Sheppard.