In the time of Black Lives Matter and polarizing political figures like Donald Trump, racism is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. In the new documentary “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America,” musician Daryl Davis pathetically attempts to have a worthwhile discourse on racism, but just ends up making a fool of himself.
The premise is great: a black man stands against the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in spite of its history as a conquering force, changing minds in his wake. However, the execution and the reality of the situation is a lot less triumphant. If there were one word to describe the film it would be “wretched.”
Davis takes director Matt Ornstein across the country from California to Alabama, as the musician interacts with his KKK friends, some of which are former members while others remain active. The fact that Davis calls one man, a proud Imperial Wizard of the KKK, a “friend” is enough to stop viewers in their tracks.
The mere mention of the three letters sends chills of trauma down the spines of those unfortunate black men and women who have experienced the Klan’s presence. Davis’ attempt to redeem the terrorist group’s members seems to be one born out of trauma. Filmmakers and Davis make it no secret they are out to answer the question: “how can you hate me when you don’t know me.”
However, the only question they seem to be resolving is how to properly validate a predominantly white audience. Davis is a smart man, so conceivably this is all a methodical move—even the dubious parts of the film potentially painting Davis in an entitled light.
The potential of the film was quickly repressed after Davis made his way to Baltimore and spoke to a group of Black Lives Matter activists. After short discussion, an argument ensues, undoubtedly the most heated moment in the film. Davis ends up calling one BLM activist “uneducated,” illustrating his elitist, classist attitude.
It was at this moment in the documentary Davis went from a tragic character of the great Greek tradition, befriending those who loathe him, to an unlikeable figure. The dichotomy between Davis’ interaction with Klansmen and Black Lives Matter activists was an interesting diversion from the typical narrative.
Here viewers see Davis’ usual easygoing demeanor turn into a spiteful, angry one.
Ironically, being among men who wish his expulsion from America fails to conjure up the same amount of rage as a black person confused about his methods and motives.
His rude demeanor toward the black activist who sought to question why Davis, as a black man, decides to make friends with the paragons of torture and terror in his community was unbecoming. At that moment I was immediately turned off from Davis. The fact that the film centered on his voice and experiences only sought to exacerbate the films diminishing light.
Viewers are left thinking perhaps Davis is not the person to lead the conversation, as it becomes increasingly clear he still has much to learn.
Thankfully, cinematographers Sam Gezari and Peter Castagnetti were able to save the overall experience of the film. They capture beautiful moments in the film, including the unapologetic essences of the KKK members as they stand around burning crosses. The powerful images of a black person standing with, not against, the KKK are sardonically biting, if not exquisitely divergent.
Despite what the title suggests, there is nothing accidental about Davis’ almost cartoonish genteel attitude toward the KKK. If anything, the only accidental courtesy shown throughout the film is his initial reaction to the Black Lives Matter activists.
The line between hobby and activism is a convoluted one in the case of “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.” In radical discourses on anti-racism the time of conceding to the distraction inherently embedded in the racism of those in power is long gone. Apparently, Davis didn’t get the memo or perhaps he never cared to check.