'Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America': SXSW Review

Accidental Courtesy Still - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW

Accidental Courtesy Still - H 2016

A provocative look at "the conversation" about race in America.

Meet the black musician who counts high-ranking Klansmen among his close friends.

What does it mean when a Grand Wizard of the KKK and a black musician call each other close friends? Many things, probably, but the most basic is this: Human beings are more complicated than they seem, more even than they believe themselves to be. Following Daryl Davis in his lifelong quest to quash racism by befriending racists, Matt Ornstein's Accidental Courtesy offers not just a case study in (change-making) tolerance but an entry point for even thornier questions. The director's first feature (he previously directed a short about the space shuttle Atlantis), the film has little to offer in cinematic terms, but the subject itself justifies wide exposure on TV and video outlets.

Davis, a Washington, D.C.-based musician who has played with Chuck Berry and other rock legends, grew up as a world citizen, traveling with a father who worked for the Foreign Service. Mixing with all sorts of kids, he claims he didn't know what racism was until his family resettled in America and, marching with fellow Cub Scouts in a parade, he was pelted by parade-watchers.

Years later, he was playing piano in a country bar when a white patron marveled that he'd never seen a "black guy who plays like Jerry Lee Lewis." Davis pointed out that Lewis got much of his style from black pianists, a friendly debate started up, and soon Davis learned he was talking to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the first of many such encounters — some of which developed into close friendships. Occasionally, the new white friend would even renounce his membership in the racist group; Davis has a collection of dozens or robes donated to him by reformed Klansmen.

Davis guides us around the country to meet men who haven't yet made that step but have no problem calling him a friend: Frank Ancona stands smiling with Davis for the camera, dressed in full purple robe and hood, hugs him and presents him with a "certificate of friendship."

Davis' M.O. is to listen patiently to speakers other right-thinking people would reject outright, looking for common ground — we see him agree with National Socialist leader Jeff Schoep on a point regarding affirmative action, and to exclaim "my man!" when Schoep in return acknowledges that, being a peanut butter lover, he must owe something to George Washington Carver.

Is that a weak victory? Perhaps. Certainly the film introduces other campaigners for civil rights who think Davis is, at best, misguided. Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says "we don't go in and have coffee with a Klan leader." And when Davis meets Black Lives Matter protester Kwame Rose, things get ugly: Rose, another young protester, and an older colleague are openly insulting to Davis, eventually walking away despite his attempts to engage them. It's heartbreaking to see people whose larger agenda is similar disagree so passionately about methods that they can't be as civil as a black man and a Grand Wizard of the KKK. As with disagreements between women of different generations about the meaning of feminism, it raises a scary prospect: Even if the "enemy" were to reform in the blink of an eye, would it take decades for these arguments to die away?

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director: Matt Ornstein
Producers: Noah Ornstein, Matt Ornstein
Executive producers: Laurie Harris, Roberto Alcantara
Directors of photography: Sam Gezari, Pete Castagnetti
Editors: Jason Jones, Ben Barnes
Sales: Sound & Vision

Not rated, 95 minutes