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Fortuitously timed in its production if not its theatrical debut, Adam Bhala Lough’s Alt-Right: Age of Rage was assembling its portrait of new strains of white nationalism — and of the counter-protesters they’ve inspired — well before a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August made “alt-right” and “Antifa” household words. Choosing a ground-level approach with just a handful of interviewees, and generally more attuned to their attitudes than the details of their arguments, the film may not greatly deepen the understanding of viewers who’ve read some well-researched journalism in the months since the Unite the Right rally. But it will stoke concern on small screens, where casual TV viewers will learn how many of their neighbors wish they could live in an all-white nation.
Though the pro- and anti-diversity sides of this debate are hardly (to employ a word much used last summer and fall) equivalent, Lough’s film does contrive a kind of structural balance, honing in on two main subjects on either side, representing both the agitational and the academic (or quasi-academic, as the case may be) sides of each position.
Those of us who believe this country belongs to blacks, Jews and others as much as to whites are represented by two voices: Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a somewhat socially awkward black man who has made it his life’s mission to denounce those who promote white nationalism; and Mark Potok, a longtime journalist who now monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. On the other side we have the overexposed Richard Spencer, personification of the New Yuppie Racism, and his more genteel comrade Jared Taylor, founder of the online publication American Renaissance.
Potok and Taylor attempt to influence by writing and speaking at seminars. Taylor, who complains he can no longer get established publishers to release his books, is the author of stuff like White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century, and claims to be the speaker of uncomfortable truths. If it’s measurable that members of one race are taller and members of another have higher IQ, he argues, it’s cowardly and dishonest not to say so and act accordingly. The movie talks a bit about the pseudoscientific lineage of this kind of thought — phrenology, eugenics and other attempts to use data to enforce social hierarchies.
Spencer, though he certainly calls on his own respectable-sounding sources, is happier to play the troll, openly insulting his ideological opponents and getting out in the streets for rallies meant to draw media attention.
He is met there by Jenkins, who was following hate groups well before the media started paying attention to them. Once described as an “insatiable doxxer,” he wants to out closet Nazis and the like, making sure their neighbors and employers know what they believe. He leads chants of protest wherever he finds white nationalism, and doesn’t shy away from confrontation.
If some would paint Jenkins and his friends as violent instigators, Potok says any fear of that is overblown. He notes that there have been times in America’s history when left-wing terrorist groups did exist, but says there’s nothing like that today.
The film offers around an hour of scene-setting and discussion, leading to a Tennessee gathering of American Renaissance believers, where courtly Taylor urges attendees not to let protesters goad them. A couple of men get in a fight nevertheless, but it’s nothing like what’s to come.
Moving to Charlottesville, Lough puts viewers in the action. We don’t talk to journalists or politicians about what happened the weekend Heather D. Heyer was killed; we stand in crowds and watch the events unfold. People get pepper-sprayed; fights break out and police do nothing. We see through Spencer’s cell phone as police eventually step in, pushing him and others back with plexi shields. Protesters and counter-protesters regroup. And then a gray sports car tears down a narrow street, running over protesters before reversing out of the crowd.
Donald Trump, later, condemns the violent actors “on many sides,” eager to stop having to talk about racists and get back to self-promotion. Some statues are pulled down that should never have been erected. And eight weeks later, Spencer and a bunch of khaki-wearing sieg-heilers are back, carrying torches and daring the world to confront them.
Production company: Alldayeveryday
Director-Screenwriter: Adam Bhala Lough
Producers: Alex Needles, Michael Karbelnikoff
Executive producers: Greg Stewart, Peter Kline, Brent Stiefel
Director of photography: Christopher Messina
Editor: Sven Pape
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
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