The subjects of a TV documentary series about the Ku Klux Klan abruptly canceled last week by A&E allege to Variety that significant portions of what was filmed were fabricated by the producers.
Some KKK leaders divulged that they were paid hundreds of dollars in cash each day of filming to compel them on camera to distort the facts of their lives to fit the documentary’s predetermined narrative: tension between Klan members and relatives of theirs who wanted to get out of the Klan.
The findings are based on an exclusive Variety investigation based on interviews with over two dozen individuals in and around the KKK who cooperated with the documentary in at least six U.S. states.
Originally scheduled to air Jan. 10, “Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America” was produced by Venice, Calif.-based production company This Is Just a Test.
The KKK leaders who were interviewed by Variety detailed how they were wooed with promises the program would capture the truth about life in the organization; encouraged not to file taxes on cash payments for agreeing to participate in the filming; presented with pre-scripted fictional story scenarios; instructed what to say on camera; asked to misrepresent their actual identities, motivations and relationships with others, and re-enacted camera shoots repeatedly until the production team was satisfied.
The production team even paid for material and equipment to construct and burn wooden crosses and Nazi swastikas, according to multiple sources including Richard Nichols, who is one of the featured subjects of the documentary series as the Grand Dragon of a KKK cell known as the Tennessee White Knights of the Invisible Empire. He also said he was encouraged by a producer to use the epithet “nigger” in interviews.
“We were betrayed by the producers and A&E,” said Nichols. “It was all made up—pretty much everything we said and did was fake and because that is what the film people told us to do and say.”
Asked about allegations, a rep for A&E declined comment beyond issuing a statement that made clear the company is going to take the additional step of conducting a probe of the production: “A&E had already made the decision to cancel this documentary series based on recently discovered payment practices of the producers in the field and we are conducting a full independent investigation into the production.”
Production company TIJAT also issued a statement in response to the allegations, which suggested participants are being intimidated into tarnishing the show.
“We take these allegations very seriously and in partnership with A&E we will be looking into them fully,” a portion of its statement read. “We have been told that participants in the series have received threats and coerced into speaking out against the authenticity of the show.”
Led by principals Aengus James and Colin Miller, TIJAT is a prolific producer of unscripted TV series for cable networks such as TLC’s “I Am Jazz” and Animal Planet’s “Project Grizzly,” as well as theatrical documentaries and commercials. TIJAT is currently negotiating with A&E to get the rights back to “Escaping the KKK” with the intent of shopping it to another network. Producers told KKK leaders who participated in the documentary prior to the cancellation that a second season was being discussed with the network.
The allegations are in stark contradiction to how the eight-episode series was positioned to the public by both A&E and TIJAT.
“This show is not rehearsed or prepackaged,” said Rob Sharenow, executive vice president and general manager of A&E and Lifetime told The Hollywood Reporter on Dec. 19. “These filmmakers knew that they weren’t going in making a reality show, they were making a hard-hitting series about a provocative subject.”
The purported quality of the program, originally known as “Generation KKK,” helped draw the support of organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change, which A&E publicized. But that didn’t keep “Generation KKK” from being accused on social media of providing a platform for a hate group. The network subsequently retitled the series, a decision Sharenow explained to Variety on Dec. 23 reflected its standing as a “pure documentary.”
But the very next day “Escaping the KKK” was suddenly canceled. As its Dec. 24 announcement revealed, the cable network made the surprise move after being made aware of payments made by the production company to Klan members, contrary to assurances the company said were made to advocacy organizations that supported the series and the public.
“A&E learned last night from the third-party producers who made the documentary that cash payments — which we currently understand to be nominal — were made in the field to some participants in order to facilitate access,” read a statement issued by the network.
The cancellation occurred less than 24 hours after this reporter contacted several producers at TIJAT with the allegations contained in this story. Those same producers, according to multiple KKK members who participated in the documentary, subsequently warned them not to speak to this reporter if contacted.
But sources close to the production also cast doubt on the testimony of KKK leaders, describing them as inveterate liars motivated by an agenda to scuttle a series that could make them look bad if it ever aired and prone to confusing being manipulated with aggressive questioning from producers.
What prompted Nichols to share his life with TV viewers was a solicitation via email from a TIJAT producer, which he summarized as saying, “We want to show everyone the real truth about the Klan.” Nichols, who can trace his lineage back to one of the founding members of the KKK, said he allowed TIJAT into his home in Pulaski, Tenn., and the KKK circles in which he traveled for anywhere from three to eight days at a time each month for a period that lasted four or five months in mid-2016.
But as Nichols describes it, the production had little interest in accurately reflecting his life. Instead, he says TIJAT producers manipulated nearly every aspect of what appeared on camera, right down to making sure his choice of words during interviews was sufficiently objectionable.
“They kept asking me, wanting me, to use the word ‘nigger,’” said Nichols, who alleged he was paid $600 per day by producers to participate. “I was sitting down being filmed and interviewed with the lights and the backdrop set up, and I said something and used the word ‘blacks.’ Then the producer interrupted me and said ‘No, no, no. We want him to use the word “nigger!”’’’
TIJAT producers went so far as to orchestrate more than one cross-burning ceremony in Pulaski, though it is presented in the documentary as if the KKK is actually hosting the event. “We’ve been allowed special access to film this secret induction,” reads a title card that precedes one of the cross-burning scenes.
“It was the producers who told me they wanted a cross-lighting,” recounted Nichols. “In fact they made two cross-lightings cause they wanted to reshoot some scenes. They bought everything—the wood, the burlap to wrap around the wood, the diesel and kerosene for my cross lighting. They even brought all the food for everyone.”
Nichols’ storyline in the documentary series involves his efforts to recruit a young man, Cody Hutt, into the KKK. But their dynamic was also less than truthful: Hutt made it clear to the producers he was never seriously considering joining the KKK, but he was willing to take $200 per day from them to act the part. “From the first day, I sat them (down) and told them I had no interest in joining the Klan,” said Hutt.
As TIJAT’s cameras capture, the tension between Nichols and Hutt reaches the boiling point when Hutt brings an anti-hate activist, Bryon Widner, to Nichols’ home to help convince Nichols to leave Hutt alone. When Nichols learns who Widner is, he angrily demands he leaves the house, even threatening to kill Widner.
But Nichols and Hutt say the scene was a fabrication. “That was 100% the TV guys’ idea and staged,” said Nichols.
“When me and Richard had a fall(ing) out and he was mad because I wouldn’t join—they staged that all,” said Hutt.
Nichols is one of four separate Klan members who are the focus of the documentary series, which also chronicles separate cells of the hate group operating in Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky.
The Klan activity in Tennessee was not the only one with fabricated elements; sources knowledgeable of what transpired among all four featured Klan groups where TIJAT shot described similar circumstances.
In Kentucky, which unlike the other three areas is not depicted in the first four episodes of the series provided to TV critics, TIJAT producers weren’t above turning its documentary subjects into fictional characters.
“They told me to find someone who was family that was against my beliefs,” said Dan Elmquist, the Imperial Wizard of the Kentucky-based Nordic Order of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who reports getting $500 a day to participate. “They were trying to get my wife and me to say that my wife didn’t like me involved in Klan stuff, but my wife is a member of the Klan. So we filmed with my Nighthawk’s wife saying she was my cousin and acting as the ‘anti-Klan’ person. A&E knew she wasn’t my cousin or against the Klan.”
The “Nighthawk”–which is KKK terminology for a clan’s chief of security—for the Nordic Order Knights who confirmed Elmquist’s account in an interview is Chris Brasher of Bowling Green, Ken. (When Elmquist and Brasher refers to “A&E,” they are not referring to the network, but producers from TIJAT. )
“A&E would give me an order of what to say–it was scripted,” said Brasher, who also reported getting $500 per day. “My wife isn’t a member of the Klan. A&E was telling her to say to me ‘If you don’t leave the Klan I am going to leave you. I don’t want to leave my husband, but if he doesn’t leave the Klan I will.’ “It was a joke, really. My wife and I get along fine. She was never going to leave me because I am in the Klan. A&E made that all up and told us what to say.”
But sources close to the production say that whatever interviews Brasher sat for were not intended for the documentary’s first season, and that it could have been for a demo reel for another season.
A&E’s payment policies for unscripted series have already created other problems for the network. Citing “Escaping the KKK” earlier this week, an attorney representing the Church of Scientology accused A&E of hypocrisy by alleging that two of the participants in the docuseries “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” were paid to appear on camera. The network hasn’t responded to the Church’s charge.
On the Tennessee shooting location of the KKK documentary, Nichols and Hutt describe being paid by a man with a blue, rectangular bank money bag, which he would unzip and hand out $50 or $100 bills.
Of the leaders of the four Ku Klux Klan groups featured on the TV series, only one denied receiving payments for his participation. “I was never paid a dime but I wished they did,” said Steve Howard, Imperial Wizard for the North Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on Dec. 24.
But on Dec. 26, Howard lashed out on his Facebook account demanding $100,000 payments from A&E and the film production company for money he said was promised and owed him. “Tomorrow by 11 I start singing. So someone better take care of it. I want lost wages,” wrote Howard. “They can buy me out or I start singing.”
Howard took down his Facebook posts less than 24 hours later.
What is still unclear is which entities had foreknowledge of the fabrications. While it is conceivable A&E could have learned what was going on via communication between the network and production during the shoot, it is also possible that the network was kept in the dark. Even the principals of the production company itself may not have had complete knowledge of how individual producers were conducting themselves on the ground at shoots.
But the documentary raises troubling questions as to how much responsibility and oversight a network should have over the content of programming it licenses to air.
In addition, the series exposes the often blurry line in TV programming between the traditional documentary, in which filmmakers typically take a fly-on-the-wall approach minimizing interference in the action unfolding in front of their cameras, with so-called reality TV like A&E’s own hit “Duck Dynasty,” which may appear to be cinema verite to unsophisticated viewers but is almost as controlled by producers as scripted dramas or comedies, with real people essentially functioning as paid actors.
The lure of easy money certainly has its allure to KKK members and their families living in some of the poorest regions of the country. Hutt, a 22-year-old high-school dropout who lives with his mother, readily admits that getting paid by producers was his motivation for helping distort the truth.
“Hey, I loved the money. Don’t get me wrong; I wanted them to come back,” he confessed. “Now I don’t want anything to do with them.”
Nate Thayer is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C.