Critic's Notebook: Is A&E's Scrapped 'Escaping the KKK' Any Good?

Does the controversial (and as-of-now unaired) series fall into the trap of normalizing the Ku Klux Klan?
Spencer Platt/Getty
If you took the week of Christmas off, you missed the beginning, middle and end of a tumultuous news cycle involving A&E's docuseries about people trying to escape the Ku Klux Klan. 
 
To recap: On Monday, Dec. 19, A&E announced that Generation KKK would premiere Jan. 10, an unusually late formal reveal for a new series. Controversy ensued, both about the subject matter and about a title that reeked of straight-up exploitation. On Dec. 23, A&E blinked and announced that Generation KKK would now be called Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, a title intended to remove any thematic guesswork. Of course, that announcement gave people new reasons to express concerns about the show's content, and the controversy didn't die down. The next day — Christmas Eve, especially when it falls on Saturday, isn't when you issue press releases that you want to be widely read — A&E pulled Escaping the KKK entirely, giving as a reason the new discovery that producers had paid participants for access, a violation of the network's documentary standards and practices. 
 
 
Announced. Retitled. Pulled. All in five days. The best thing about the cycle for A&E is that it happened so fast that most people probably missed the entire, bungled arc. 
 
The late announcement allowed cynical observers to infer that A&E was embarrassed about the show or, if A&E actually was proud of the show, that the network was hoping to generate a quick supernova of press to spur a big premiere rather than building buzz or word-of-mouth through long-tail promotion. The title, Generation KKK, only made matters worse. The show is absolutely about how a major part of what keeps the KKK going is that it's passed along from generation to generation like a malicious, hateful hereditary disease, but that's maybe the fourth or fifth idea conjured by the title Generation KKK, which opted for glib and catchy over insightful and informative. The new title, Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, could basically have been accompanied by the tagline, "Just in case you don't know what this show is about, we wanted to hit you over the head with it" — or "If folks doth protest too much, we'll protest too much, wethinks." 
 
And then the call to yank the show entirely? It just makes you wonder what conversations occurred. Was it the producers coming to A&E with receipts being all, "BTW, we were hoping to get reimbursed for these payments to the Noble Hedgewizard of the Alabama Chapter of the Translucent Worms of the KKK"? Or was it A&E going to the producers all, "Ummm ... Maybe we should have brought this up earlier, but you didn't give money to these cross-burners, did you?" 
 
Escaping the KKK is now available for acquisition, I believe, should there be a cable network or streaming service eager to purchase a property that already has generated protests. Paying documentary subjects, while it probably sounds icky to you and me, is far from unheard of in the TV game, and plenty of networks and services don't have the policy A&E apparently has. But there's a difference between covering your eyes and proudly announcing, "Yeah, we don't care about stuff like that and we don't care if you know that we don't care," which is what one would have to do were one to pick up Escaping the KKK. Somebody will pick it up. A&E has taken the brunt of whatever outrage existed, and a new outlet would get a well-made docuseries with partnerships with the Anti-Defamation League and other anti-hate organizations.
 
Is it worth it? Fortunately, I don't have to do that math.
 
What I did do is watch the four episodes of what was still titled Generation KKK that A&E made available weeks before the premiere. The show that became Escaping the KKK is good, powerful, potentially impactful TV, which doesn't mean that it's responsible TV — and weighing those things against each other makes for uncomfortable viewing, sometimes in a way the producers obviously intended and other times not.
 
 
Controversy aside, what exactly is Escaping the KKK? Produced by This Is Just A Test, it's split up into three stories of people trying to leave the Klan or sever connections with the Klan.

In Mississippi, we meet Maggie, 14-year-old daughter of the Imperial Wizard, North Mississippi White Knights. Maggie's father wants her to be as involved as she used to be when she was a little girl attending cross-burnings, but Maggie has African-American friends now, and she wants no part of her dad's world. 
 
In Tennessee, we meet fatherless Cody Hicks, whose paternal proxy is the Grand Dragon of the Tennessee Knights of the Invisible Empire, a domineering figure who wants to bring Cody into the fold because his own sons want no part of that legacy. Cody is unsure. 
 
In Georgia, we meet Chris Buckley, Grand Knighthawk North Georgia White Knights. A longtime military veteran clearly suffering from PTSD, Chris is passing along his traditions and hatred to his two young children, and his wife Melissa is getting worried.
 
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of the One People's Project, and a pair of former, recovered white supremacists are summoned into each situation, and a process of attempted extrication ensues, complete with public confrontations, clandestine conversations and therapy.
 
Escaping the KKK honors a process that is unimaginably complicated and fraught, taking a methodical approach to each of the three storylines. One could imagine a rushed version of this material in which each episode swiftly recounted one story of escape in 44 minutes, tied up neatly in a bow with a happy "Now we're not racist anymore!" postscript. Instead, Escaping the KKK is about incremental victories, crushing moments of backsliding and progress that feels mostly convincing. This isn't clean and simple. Jenkins doesn't just walk up to a KKK member and say, "We're all equal," prompting reconciliation, hugs and tears. As depicted here, our heroes are prone to engaging in manipulation and emotional blackmail, which are presented as the best and perhaps only ways to fight against the aggressive and passive-aggressive tactics used by the Klan.
 
There are enough mind games being played on both sides that Escaping the KKK unfolds as compelling psychodrama. There's something refreshing in how little the subjects in Escaping the KKK seem to care about how they're going to be presented in the series, which often makes it hard to "like" the heroes in a conventional way, because they aren't experiencing epiphanies in ways that would be conventionally satisfying. They're flawed, hurt people — and I'm talking about both the anti-hate activists and the people they're actively trying to help, though there's no ambiguity regarding who the heroes of Escaping the KKK are, or of the struggle they're going through.
 
The series also plays as a terrifying thriller, because the producers got a level of access that is frequently astonishing. It isn't just the high-ranking members of the KKK who speak with them, but the number of KKK events the producers were able to film, including cross-burnings, protests and a "naturalization" ("induction") ritual for new members. Most of what we see is ceremonial, but the second episode ends with a subject being driven out into the wilderness for what we assume will be a violent confrontation with masked figures. Even if that's finally the moment when the Klansmen draw the line on filming, it's terrifying. 
 
But with access comes the tip of the queasiness iceberg, and even if A&E hadn't acknowledged during the weekend that payments were made, that access was always going to be a point of uncertainty. Knowing about the payments, it's impossible to see the multiple references to "access" and "special access" noted in the series without immediately realizing you're dealing with footage that a hate group was paid to let you see. Documentary filming and even news access is always about negotiation. But certain scenes here elicit viewer reactions somewhere between "I can't believe I'm seeing this" and "I can't believe the compromises that must have taken place to allow me to see this." And that isn't just about money — A&E tried to describe the payments as "nominal," as if the concern becomes bigger or smaller depending on the number of zeroes in the exchange — but also about the promises that must have been made regarding how the KKK would be depicted.
 
 
For me, the quality-versus-ickiness breaking point came in the fourth episode when Steve Howard, the aforementioned Imperial Wizard of North Mississippi White Knights, does a couple of media appearances to promote the Klan's protest against Black Lives Matter marches in Tupelo. "It gives me a way to reach the masses," Howard tells the Escaping the KKK cameras. "There's no such thing as bad publicity in what I do."
 
Oh.
 
As Howard talks candidly about manipulating local media, all I could think was, "Do the producers think they're getting something more candid? Did they not understand that they're just a part of a cycle in which this man believes there's absolutely no downside?" 
 
Howard tells his fiancée that he wants to be the next David Duke and Escaping the KKK and formerly A&E were giving him his biggest platform to date, taking a regional hate group figure and making him a national posterboy. And even if you think he's being made a national posterboy for hate, Howard doesn't care. He doesn't shy away from uttering racial slurs and making threats on-camera, because he knows that for the people who do follow him and might be inclined to follow him, these are badges of honor and courage. Even if heretofore unseen episodes might find Howard softening his message and even undergoing a major transformation, his initial portrait of KKK leadership is defiant and unapologetic.
 
"Normalizing" has been a media watchword in recent months and Escaping the KKK absolutely is playing a role in normalizing the Ku Klux Klan in the most literal way imaginable. It doesn't matter if I watch the series knowing they're villains and you watch the series knowing they're villains; the Klansmen also are presented as dedicated parents and friends and community activists. They're allowed to push counter-narratives in which the lighting of a cross is described as a "religious ceremony," in which most of what they do is "advocacy" and they only sometimes have to perform interventions (which are never seen or explained or specified). Just because I'm not swayed by Klan members protesting that they're "separatists" and not "supremacists" and you're not swayed and 95 percent of potential viewers might not be swayed, there are going to be some viewers who think it's reasonable when Chris Buckley says, "You have the United States catering to the minority. The Klan is white folks helping white folks," or impressed by discussion of how Klansmen pay each other's rent and provide financial and spiritual support when necessary because nobody else will.
 
There's value to viewers understanding and recognizing what Klan members actually look like in 2016 and to understanding the socio-economic conditions that keep the Klan going — to not imagining these people as one-dimensional monsters — but there's also danger. You can argue that a long sequence showing a young man getting fitted for his Klan hood and cloak is about deconstructing a potent symbol and stripping it of its power, and I'd agree with you; but you could also say that it's treating a symbol associated with a domestic terror organization like it's no big deal, and you wouldn't be wrong. 
 
Somehow we've also reached the point at which the producers feel like it isn't necessary to go into depth on atrocities committed by the Klan from Reconstruction to the present day. I guess the assumption is that we know? But if you don't specify things the Ku Klux Klan actually did in their 150-year history and you just make them look like people who sometimes picket or march or burn things, you open the door for the ignorant comparisons between the KKK and Black Lives Matter. I'm not accusing the producers here of making that comparison themselves, but they repeatedly put the two groups in opposition and nobody just comes out and says, "OK. These aren't parallel organizations because ..." If your thesis is that modern KKK membership is on the rise, shouldn't it be essential not to let ignorance of past KKK crimes be a continued excuse? For the Klansmen here to deny their racism would be pointless. They barely try to. But neither are they asked to account for the crimes perpetrated by the Klan in the past.
 
 
And just as Escaping the KKK doesn't glamorize the Klan's activities and behaviors, the series is so giddy over its access that it doesn't stop to consider the evocative power of the imagery they've been given access to. When you show robed men with torches moving in slow motion around a burning cross, one man's nightmare is another man's inspiration. And while what's here isn't propaganda in itself, it may well be manipulated to propagandistic effect.  
 
I came away from four episodes of Escaping the KKK extremely conflicted. It's more important than ever for people to be aware of the rise of hate groups in the United States, to see what these faces look like, to hear what their ideology sounds like and to know that there are good people out there trying to help. And Escaping the KKK is involving TV. I know that the producers of Escaping the KKK approached this from an honorable perspective and Escaping the KKK isn't intended as a promotional reel for the Klan. But the fact is a lot of hateful people will probably be pretty chill about how they're portrayed here. 
 
A&E also now has permanently colored any ability to appreciate the show's "special access." It's one thing to constantly be pondering, "I wonder how they got this access," and another to be ever-aware, "Oh, now I can imagine the producers in the background slipping an envelope of cash to that guy in the hood" (even if nothing that blatant or incriminating actually occurred). Anybody thinking of acquiring Escaping the KKK would get a potential teaching tool, but they also get a property that A&E has left sullied and that surely is open to the dreaded "normalizing" accusation. That's a tough cost-benefit analysis to deal with.
comments powered by Disqus