Two KKK Documentaries Explore the Responsibilities of Activists and Filmmakers

Following the debacle around a canceled reality TV series, 'Birth of a Movement' and 'Accidental Courtesy' show how the Klan’s legacy persists today.
January 6, 2017, 7:31pm
Peter Castagnetti.

A blink-and-you-missed-it controversy played out last month over the A&E series Generation KKK. The show was announced on December 19 and immediately faced criticism about its perceived normalization of the white power movement. Actor Wendell Pierce was calling for a boycott, while Ellen Pompeo got drawn into a Twitter spat sparked by her use of black emojis.

Four days later, the show's title was changed to Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, and a civil rights organization was announced as an addition to A&E's partners. (Full disclosure: VICELAND is a joint venture between A&E Networks and VICE Media.) Then, just one day later, the show was canceled. According to an A&E statement, the network had learned the day before that producers had paid some interviewees for access, which violated A&E's ethical guidelines.

One good thing that might emerge from this is slightly increased attention to the KKK documentaries soon to air on PBS.

Birth of a Movement, premiering February 6, explores the notorious KKK-glorifying The Birth of a Nation—"a film whose legacy has prolonged the racial distrust and horrific problems associated with slavery," in the words of Birth of a Movement's co-director/producer Bestor Cram.

The focus of Movement is on a lesser-known figure in US civil rights: William Monroe Trotter. Angered by the 1915 epic Nation, which depicted black men as violent rapists who deserved to be suppressed by heroic Klansmen, Trotter tried to get screenings stopped in his hometown of Boston. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and instead led to more tickets sold to curious white viewers. But Trotter's and the NAACP's organizing around the film created an important template for the future. And the film's legacy persisted, infuriating a young Spike Lee when it was presented at NYU's film school without any historical context.

Nation, meanwhile, became a recruiting tool for the KKK—an organization that had been fading into obscurity before the movie came along. Movement shows the lack of easy answers when it comes to freedom of speech. Yes, the right to expression is important, but when is this trumped by the right to life? Nation endangered black people's lives, point-blank. In the current political climate, it can be argued that racially inflammatory language is itself making some groups less safe, even if the connection is less direct than with Nation.

A Boston NAACP pamphlet protesting 'The Birth of a Nation.' Credit: 'Birth of a Movement,' Northern Light Productions, 2016

Birth of a Movement will be followed on February 13 by Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (which also opens in New York City today). Accidental Courtesy follows pianist Daryl Davis around the country as he gives talks, visits racially significant sites, and catches up with buddies—who happen to be current or former Klansmen. These people are varying degrees of delusional, like the National Socialist Movement commander who compares himself to MLK Jr. Davis talks about having turned men like these—who say they don't hate him personally—into first friends, then doubters of the white power ideology.

Producer/director Matt Ornstein told me that the filmmaking team was cautious about keeping a careful balance between not giving extremists too much airtime and showing the continued relevance of their ideas. Thus, key intended audiences included groups that were less familiar with the Klan, like people outside of the US and young people within the US, who—before recent political events, at least—would have seen white supremacy as a historical relic.

Responsibility around humanizing Klansmen rested heavily with the filmmakers. "We treated it like a lab loaded with plutonium," Ornstein said. But ultimately it was necessary to present the KKK interviewees as three-dimensional people, not just out of a documentarian's duty, but also to show the capacity for change. Ornstein argued, "We have this concept of people that are racist or full of hate or join ISIS; it's like they have stage three cancer, and they're gone forever. And that's not true. They are people, and they can change their lives, and as long as we don't view them as human, as long as we write them off completely, we're not really giving them many options."

Davis actually sees the current political climate as an opportunity. As he explained to me, his KKK-related work has led him to the conclusion that "back" in the motto "Take our country back"—like "again" in "Make American great again"—is a code word akin to a KKK slogan. Any suggestion otherwise is "a crock of bullspit." But after nearly 30 years of getting up close and personal with white supremacists, who in his experience all voted for Trump, "I feel that Donald Trump is the best thing that has happened to the country. Now he's brought out all these people. I know where they are, I've always known where they are. But the general populace did not know where they are."

The friendships shown in Accidental Courtesy are a bit cozy, and the film's best scene is also its most combative one. Davis explained, "It almost got into a fistfight or something." Davis sits down to drinks with a couple of young Black Lives Matter activists, who are at first confused about his "hobby," then ultimately pissed-off about what they call his "fetish." They consider him a sellout for wasting energy on individual bigots, rather than working within the black community. When Davis returns after this confrontation to his garage museum, with its carefully tended collection of KKK memorabilia from Klansmen he's converted, his expression is heavy.

Davis's kill-'em-with-kindness type of activism isn't the same as theirs, he acknowledged. "If you want to tear down the system [of white supremacy], then go after the people who created it. When you change their lives, they change the system. So that's the way I do it. I go after the individuals… I take the direct approach of sitting down and talking with the racists."

Daryl Davis with activists Tariq Touré (left) and Kwame Rose (right) in Baltimore. Credit: Sam Gezari

One question is whether anyone will watch these two films. Ornstein acknowledged, "The group that watches social justice–related documentaries is already somewhat self-selecting." At the same time, "I would love for more people who disagree with the film completely to see it."

The PBS audience tends to be well-off and liberal, while A&E's reality programming has made stars out of parking cops, storage locker buyers, and Duck Dynasty (which theNew York Times considers the strongest example of a geographically skewed TV show).

So the messiness around Escaping the KKK seems like a wasted opportunity. No matter how well-made its films might be, PBS is preaching to the choir. A balanced documentary series about the KKK that asks tough questions about political legitimacy and race relations, on a network that isn't seen as elite, could be useful right about now. And Birth of a Movement's Cram is one documentarian who would have supported this idea.

But Escaping the KKK probably wasn't that series. Allegations that participants were paid hefty sums and told how to behave suggest that the show was more reality TV than "docuseries," the label it had been striving for. Cram pointed out that it should never have been presented as a documentary.

If this shitstorm shows anything, it's that holding production teams to account is a good thing, but that this has to go in multiple directions. It's not enough to ask if hate is being normalized (or ratcheted up for ratings). We also need to ask how, if the aim of a film is to change minds, it can reach those minds in the first place. In Davis's words, "The problem today is people talk about each other or they talk at each other… Let's talk with each other."