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

Spirituality & Health Magazine
reviewed by Bilge Ebiri

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

Matt Ornstein

Sound & Vision

“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” That’s the hypothetical question that renowned blues musician Daryl Davis asks when he reaches out to members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists—something he’s been doing for four decades. Matt Ornstein’s documentary follows Davis, an African American, as he relates how he’s become friendly with many members of the KKK, and—through their one-on-one interactions—convinced them to change their racist beliefs. Davis continues his friendships with many of these men, even a few who haven’t quite reformed their ways (though he continues to have hope for them). When someone he knows leaves the KKK, Davis takes his robes and adds them to his massive collection, with which he hopes one day to open a museum.

As you might expect, this is a film that can be hard to watch: one marvels at the grace and courtesy Davis shows toward people who have vowed violence toward him and anyone who looks like him. His patience as he hears these people out is remarkable. But as Davis himself notes: the more he listens, the more likely it is that one day his opponent will finally ask him for his opinion, thus creating a dialogue. It sounds delusional, but the man’s got the discarded robes to prove it.

Is this any way to create real change? Not everyone agrees that it is, and the second half of the film does feature several people challenging Davis’s tolerant ways. Among those who aren’t buying this approach are several Black Lives Matter activists, who get visibly angry with Davis for what they view as a betrayal of his own race. What’s the use of converting a handful of individuals, they ask, when the system is still sick—when black men and women are being killed, seemingly indiscriminately, by police and others on a regular basis? Another challenge comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and finds Davis’s “retail” approach to confronting racism not nearly as effective as its “wholesale” approach. Ornstein’s film can contain these multitudes: it can follow the moving results of Davis’s dialogue-based actions while also addressing its many very real limitations. It’s a touching, troubling film. And it has extra relevance in these hate-filled times.

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