Familiar but fresh

Here in Wisconsin (and I suspect elsewhere in the United States) cover music, especially live cover music, has a suspect reputation. Our local markets are flooded with bands whose primary talent is presenting other, more famous bands’ original recordings, with pristine fidelity. The idea is, if you’ve never had a chance to see the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, here’s the next best thing. This gets the house a-rockin’, but artistically it leaves something to be desired. It’s simply an amped-up version of what you’d hear on the radio.

But cover music has its charms when there’s interpretation going on. It can be a tightrope act, particularly if the original band or song belongs to the canon of the beloved. If you’re going to take on the Stones or Beatles, you have to bring something new to the mix. No one will do what they did as well as they did it. But approached in the spirit of creativity, a cover version can give us two songs for the price of one. Or in the case of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” three songs — versions by Dylan, George Harrison and Olivia Newton-John that are as unique as the artists themselves.

It’s easier when the acts carry distinctly different backgrounds — musically, culturally or even geographically. Consider Erma Franklin’s brassy, bluesy “Piece of My Heart.” Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Janis Joplin brought her own blues chops to the song, but her guttural screeching and the band’s wailing guitars steer the song into heavy metal territory. Listen to English bands like the Moody Blues taking on Bessie Banks’ “Go Now” or the Stones doing Irma Thomas’ “Time is on My Side,” and you’ll hear subdued, somewhat refined vocals where their predecessors unleashed full-throated, bruising pipes.

Sometimes nationality isn’t the distinction. The Who found Marvin Gaye’s bouncy “Baby Don’t You Do it” a perfect fit for their manic energy, while Gaye’s fellow North Americans The Band re-imagined the song in their trademark rootsy groove. It’s so interesting to hear the different ways people hear the same music.

And it’s not just music. Cinema has a similar tradition, and while I’m not as studied in film as music, most of the remakes I’ve seen — “Sabrina” comes to mind — stick to the script (pun intended). To be sure, you’ll see cosmetic changes, for instance to update clothing, gender roles and other cultural references from one era to another, but there’s no substantive structural alteration. The essential creative direction and message of the film remain intact.

But this winter, I had the opportunity, on back-to-back frosty December nights, to check out the Norwegian psychological thriller “Insomnia,” along with Christopher Nolan’s American remake. Told either way, it’s a taut whodunit involving a hotshot detective dispatched to the near-Arctic to solve a grisly murder, only to come unglued by insomnia in land of the midnight sun (in the American version, Alaska).

Again, I noticed some cosmetic variations that I’d attribute to the remake being a Hollywood product. The cold-blooded killing of a dog and suggestions of sex involving teenage schoolgirls are scrubbed from the American film. It makes sense. The intended audience is more multiplex than art house.

What’s most striking is the Europeans’ grasp of subtlety, and it begins with the detective. His background, motives, abilities, even his memories become wrapped in layers of ambiguity as sleeplessness peels away at his reality. His American counterpart, played by Al Pacino, is more clearly defined. He carries his own baggage from the Lower 48, but that backstory comes into focus as the plot moves toward resolution, rendering the confusion of insomnia a secondary concern. Equally palpable is the arch-villain Robin Williams, whose actions and intentions, while twisted, make sense. The film’s most effective display of subtlety lies in the blurring, through a shared guilty past, of the evil and good that Williams and Pacino are meant to represent. In that way it’s an existential film, in which two men struggle to preserve their identities amid the moral fog of endless arctic daylight. Insomnia doesn’t cause the confusion, it merely brings it to the fore.

The Norwegian original, meanwhile, pays less attention to the protagonist-antagonist relationship in favor of the detective’s internal struggle for sanity. Solving the crime becomes less important as day after sleepless day wear down the veneer of certainty. Stellan Skarsgard plays the role with a characteristic nordic coolness that vacillates between intriguingly mysterious and frustratingly passionless. It’d be interesting to see how the hot-headed and expressive Pacino would’ve approached the role in the Norwegian production.

And then there’s the ending. (Spoiler alert: Stop here if you plan to watch either film.) That Pacino’s detective finds redemption through death is a common American — especially Hollywood — cinematic resolution. That is to say, neat and tidy. Death settles all scores. It acknowledges the detective’s flawed character, finally free of the dark secrets that threatened to consume him, redeemed through heroically bringing Williams — also dead and perhaps free of his demons as well — to justice. No such luck with Skarsgard, whose transgressions are uncovered but ultimately overlooked by the local authorities, leaving him to return home to his day job, and the audience to return home with more questions than answers. How typically European.

So which film works better? Which approach, which cinematic tradition wins out? That’s obviously not the point. It’s the interpretations that matter and the differences that interest me. They help us understand not only where the filmmakers are coming from — both literally and artistically — but how they perceive their audiences. Without those differences, they’re just copying an original, like a flawless, soulless Rembrandt reproduction. Or in musical terms, a cheesy cover band.

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On the cold side of history

Newsrooms can be fairly casual office environments. It’s common to see colleagues come and go in jeans, sweatshirts, shorts, T-shirts and maybe a baseball cap. Still, I try to maintain a degree of professionalism with dress shirts and khakis, sometimes a sweater and on rare occasions a sports jacket. The idea is you never know who you’ll run into in the office.

But there are days, typically Fridays, when I join the laid-back crowd, strolling into the office with well-worn jeans, a long-sleeve T or henley shirt and comfortable tennis shoes. It’s Friday. Who’s gonna care?

Yet one Friday this autumn, it suddenly mattered. I arrived at my desk to find various elements of a film crew working around the newsroom. I immediately shrank down into my chair to keep myself out of sight lines. With cameras passing left and right, I caught an editor’s attention and quietly got the scoop: It was an NFL Films crew shooting footage for a documentary timed with the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game in Green Bay.

WATCH: “The Timeline: The Ice Bowl”

As I contemplated an escape route to an empty office, the editor brought the film director by for what I thought would be a cursory introduction. Instead, the director spent several gracious minutes with me and a couple other editors sharing stories in a slight Texas drawl. He was Michael Meredith, son of the NFL and broadcasting legend Don Meredith, who as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was at Lambeau Field for that frigid championship game on Dec. 31, 1967. The Packers’ 21-17 victory, generally viewed as one of the greatest games in NFL history, cemented coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr as icons. It’s what put the glory in Green Bay’s glory years.

The game held outsized impact for Dallas, too, and that was the subject of the younger Meredith’s documentary. For him, the project was personal as he sifted through the reverberations of that loss for his father and the Cowboys community. Points of interest:

  • The Ice Bowl was the second heart-breaking championship defeat in the calendar year for Dallas. On Jan. 1, 1967, the Packers held off the Cowboys — this time the host team at the Cotton Bowl -— 34-27, with a late Meredith interception sealing the victory. For a team and city desperately struggling to escape the shadows of the JFK assassination, Dallas fans were beginning to feel snake-bitten.
  • While the Ice Bowl is cherished with reverence throughout Wisconsin, the game signaled a changing of the guard. Green Bay was an aging team. Lombardi would soon leave for a short stint in Washington, and Starr would retire not long after. The future belonged to the younger, faster Cowboys. The “star” that Meredith helped put on the NFL map would blossom into the wildly successful “America’s team” that produced two decades of winning, a pair of Super Bowl titles and a lucrative world-wide commercial brand that lives on today. The Packers, meanwhile, languished in mediocrity until the 1990s.
  • For all the beaming pride bestowed on the Packers’ gutsy performance in the Ice Bowl, the offense struggled mightily for long stretches of the game. After jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, Green Bay did virtually nothing until the final drive. To its credit, Dallas shook off its miserable start and erased the early deficit, but the Cowboys only produced one offensive touchdown, that being on a halfback option pass that caught the Packers’ secondary off guard. The other points came courtesy of a Starr sack/fumble and a field goal set up by a botched Green Bay punt return. In other words, this game was not an offensive showcase. But keep in mind, it was 12 degrees below zero.
  • It’s hard to fault the Packers for envisioning a future coach in Starr. On the opening touchdown, his audible for a slant pass to Boyd Dowler badly fooled the Dallas coverage, leaving Dowler open for the easy score. Starr also called the fabled game-winning sneak. He proposed it during the team’s final timeout, getting Lombardi’s blessing with “run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” It suggests that Starr, not Lombardi, ran the team while it was on the field. Yet, given his chance at the helm, the former would go on to lead the Packers through much of the “gory years” of the 1970s and ’80s. There’s more to coaching than play-calling.
  • There’s some question as to whether Packers guard Jerry Kramer made a false start on the Starr sneak. The replay does seem to show early movement by Kramer, whose block paved the way for Starr’s score. Had the penalty been called, the Packers could’ve tried again from 5-1/2 yards out or, with time dwindling and no timeouts, opted for a chip shot field goal, sending the coldest game in the history of the NFL into overtime.

Meredith took both 1967 losses as personal failures, and he retired just a year after the Ice Bowl at the age of 31. He went on to become a long-time broadcaster on “Monday Night Football,” where his folksy charm served him well opposite the wordy Howard Cosell and straight-man Frank Gifford. And while he pursued a successful acting career, he steadfastly avoided roles that cast him as an ex-athlete. He made it clear that when he retired, he was done with football.

The connection between Meredith’s career arc and the game that largely defined it lurks within the subtext of “Timeline.” This is where it gets personal for the director. His father, who died in 2010, remained tight-lipped about the game that arguably broke his spirit. Yet the younger Meredith regrets not asking him about it, and the documentary is largely a product of trying to fill in the gaps.

I couldn’t help but sense that filial mission as we chatted around my desk that Friday in autumn. Michael inherited a healthy dose of his dad’s affable nature, regaling us with some of the tidbits that his father did share with him. How the family had to hire security guards for their home after a Cowboys loss. And conversely, how fans wanted Meredith for governor after a victory. And somewhat scandalously to us in Green Bay, how Lombardi, earlier in the 1960s and hungry for titles, had proposed a trade with the Cowboys — Starr, plus some extras, for Meredith. Who knows how serious Lombardi was, but Starr was essentially unproven at that point, with Meredith likely showing more potential, so it’s possible it was a legitimate offer that Dallas rejected.

Eventually, the younger Meredith — an accomplished film director in his own right — needed to get down to filming, leaving me briefly regretting not telling him the fond memories I have of listening to his dad defuse Cosell on “Monday Night Football.” I worried that my personal association of “Dandy Don” as a TV celebrity — I’m too young to have seen him play — would be dismissive of his distinguished NFL career. I also indulged the journalist’s instinct to refrain from talking and keep listening. That’s always a good call.

As for the day’s filming, I’m happy to report I share screen time with the likes of Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Mel Renfro and Roger Staubach. But to spot me, you’ll need to do a frame-by-frame advance during the half-second of my back appears as Michael Meredith and our editor walk past my desk. Just look for the guy in the rumpled red shirt.

 

After further review

At some point I suppose I have to reckon my lukewarm regard for The Band as a conscious and foolish decision to deprive myself of one of the endearing figures in rock music. The first step is admitting the problem; the second is taking a proactive step. So I did this week by picking up a DVD of the 1978 classic concert film “The Last Waltz,” shot at The Band’s 1976 farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The movie’s mystique, carried by the premise of a beloved group calling it quits at its artistic peak, endures in critical circles as both a filmmaking and musical triumph. That it was shot by Martin Scorcese, who already owned claim to one of the best movies ever made in “Taxi Driver,” only enhanced the mystique.

Was it everything I expected? Sure, I’ll go with that. It was what it was: a finely tuned ensemble of veteran musicians commanding a wide variety of American musical styles with a loaded roster of guest players, captured in action via expert camera work. But much like 1970’s “Woodstock” (which featured a young Scorcese among its crew), it was the pieces rather than the whole that interested me. An unintended guitar lick. Singers harmonizing with careless perfection. A smile (or scowl) shared across the stage between bandmates. A moment of “I’m-too-old-for-this” candor amid the bravado of backstage interviews. These are the slices of life Scorcese captures so well.

Here then are some snippets that stood out, along with some general observations on the film:

1. Scorcese is a master. Yes, we already knew that, but his visual grasp of the concert stage is remarkable. There are a lot of moving parts during a rock show, yet the camera angles and focal points are invariably spot on.

2. A young Ray Liotta could’ve played Robbie Robertson. I kid of course — it’s a documentary, so Robbie makes the perfect Robbie. But it’s worth wondering whether Scorcese’s experience with his lead subject stuck with him when casting Liotta for 1990’s “Goodfellas.”

3. Neil Young has the goofiest grin.

4. Joni Mitchell has the cutest grin.

5. The Band’s good-guy, anti-rock star reputation was for real. It always struck me that they never seemed to have a true leader, a front man through which the group’s energy was channeled. On the stage you see it: a conspicuous absence of ego in a profession that rewards, even demands self-promotion. More amazingly, this odd humility rubs off on their musical guests, some of whom bring significant star power to the gig. One after another, top guns like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters shuffle onto the stage with shy grins, do their song with The Band, and depart with little more than a wave. No bows. No preening. No adulation. In a look-at-me business, it’s refreshing.

6. That said, I quickly got the sense that Robertson was pulling the strings. He has a low-key manner about him, but on stage and backstage, he holds the center of gravity. It turns out I was onto something — the final credits list Robertson as producer.

7. Robertson is a much better live guitarist than I’d imagined based on Band records I’ve heard.

8. Levon Helm was one of the great singing drummers of rock ‘n’ roll. Much like the Eagles’ Don Henley, Helm could rightfully have held the title of lead singer had he not been stashed behind his kit. Not that I’m blaming The Band for doing so — his drum work brings pop to the group’s somewhat slumbering vibe. But his ability to turn a lazy growl to a plaintive wail and back is a unique bonus.

9. Scorcese did humanity a favor by committing the live rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to celluloid immortality. It reminded me of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” performance in “Woodstock,” in which Stephen Stills’ spellbinding guitar work made me completely forget that I’ve never much cared for that song. Likewise, I’ve always had mixed feelings about “Dixie” and its sympathetic view towards defeated Southern rebels, but the musical mastery on display — particularly the impassioned delivery from Southerner Helm — can’t be denied.

10. If there was any truth to what I’ve read of Marvin Gaye’s legendary insecurity, he had to be chewing his nails off hearing The Band reconstruct his “Don’t Do It” into a brassy, slow-groove masterpiece. This wasn’t the studio. This was one take, on stage, and they nailed it. That band was tight.

11. Van Morrison… thud. The first blip in the film arises in his inability to read the band’s wind-down sequence to “Caravan.” After some confused warbling at the mic, Van and The Band ultimately bring it home, but the moment was there, and the show loses some of its luster.

12. Bob Dylan… double thud. Remember what I said about lack of ego and preening? Check that. For a pair of songs, along with the ensemble concert finale, Dylan jealously projects himself in front of the entire venture, and for those few minutes, I genuinely lost interest in the film. Unfortunately for Scorcese, that’s how the show ends, leaving me to disappointedly scan back through the DVD for more congenial chapters. Theatergoers in 1978 didn’t have that option.

It’s interesting that a while back I blogged, somewhat carelessly, a list of revered musical acts I’m supposed to like but don’t, and wouldn’t you know it, leading off were none other than Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band. “The Last Waltz” shows in part why the first two earned my scorn, but I now realize The Band, mixed bag that it is for me, is better than that.

I can objectively say The Band’s greatest asset is its musical breadth. It’s difficult to place the group into an identifiable style or genre, and the guest pairings in “The Last Waltz” hammer this point home. Ostensibly a rock ‘n’ roll outfit (the movie opens with a title card stating “This film should be played loud!”), The Band effortlessly slips into blues (with Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters), yet shows itself equally comfortable doing folk rock (with Neil Young for “Helpless”), jazz (“Coyote” with Joni Mitchell) and even its own gospel-tinged “The Weight” with the Staple Singers. It may be a chameleon act of sorts, but while most chameleon acts lack a core, that’s the not case with The Band. Their feet are firmly planted in American roots rock (interesting for a group of mostly Canadians), and their catalog constitutes a road map of 20th century American music — the country, blues, jazz, gospel pieces, and the rock ‘n’ roll they comprised. Perhaps it’s their versatility that causes problems for me, but that’s my problem. “The Last Waltz” gave The Band darling status in perpetuity, and through Scorcese’s cameras, we see a band quite deserving of it.

Guitar hero

There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” that goes something like this:

Campbell, the faded country-crossover musician battling Alzheimer’s disease, is in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The doctor asks him to wiggle his fingers like he’s playing the piano, to which Campbell retorts, “but I’m a guitar player.”

Somehow, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, a lucid, wise-cracking Campbell sparkles with trademark Southern sass, right down to the folksy pronunciation of “GIH-tar.” And then just as quickly, the fog returns.

It was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, having watched my father spend his final years succumbing to Alzheimer’s, only to fire the occasional spark of humor or recollection. For anyone desperately hoping to see the return of the person they knew, it’s easy to be seduced by notions of an unexplained reversal, or perhaps a miraculous misdiagnosis. But my siblings and I knew the diagnosis to be correct, and we also knew there was no reversing the course of this disease.

I was in the doctor’s office with my dad when the diagnosis came. It was matter-of-fact, even cold, considering the weight of such news. Dad took it with puzzled acceptance and his trademark good cheer. I’ll never know whether he really understood the implications. I didn’t ask. It would be devastating to process, and he could be excused for shrugging it off the way he would a poor glucose test. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, we had lunch at his favorite diner, the “dad jokes” flying fast and furious. I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but even then, he scored a couple of direct hits that had me cracking up. For a moment the old Dad sparkled, and for a moment I entertained notions of a reversal or misdiagnosis.

“I’ll Be Me” features an eerily similar doctor’s visit for Campbell, who meets the presentation of MR scans and medical mumbo jumbo with the too-eager “uh-huhs” and “oh yeahs” of a student in biology class. Like my dad, he didn’t show it, but I suspect he knew what all of it meant. And yet, he responded by launching a last hurrah tour and agreeing to have filmmakers document it. The burning question is why?

His reasons weren’t clear to me, but perhaps Campbell wanted to give Alzheimer’s a face. Not just one face, but many faces — the sufferer, his family, friends or anyone else affected by the robbing of a person’s mind in the most brutal and heartless way imaginable. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the increasing difficulties Campbell has with touring, and the accompanying headaches his family navigates in managing their erratic headliner. There are some very uncomfortable moments in “I’ll Be Me,” and I struggled with the family’s insistence on going forward with a tour that reduced this once-great performer to a lost, confused, occasionally angry high-wire circus act robbed of his most important remaining possession — his dignity. I had to take it on faith that the entire venture, while endlessly skirting disaster, was in accordance with Campbell’s wishes.

When Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, I immediately thought of “I’ll Be Me.” I was aware of his tremendous musical legacy, beginning with his early days as a Beach Boys fill-in before breaking through with solo hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind.” His defining “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a radio staple during my youth, made him a bona fide pop star, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered what a marvelous GIH-tar player Campbell was. And yet, it was “I’ll Be Me” that gave real meaning to his death. I felt not only grief but relief at the peace that had finally come to him and his family.

Performing artists succeed as pop stars because of their ability to effectively convey common themes. Through their expression of universal emotions, we feel less alone, and that’s why we listen to them. Before I watched “I’ll Be Me,” I stupidly regarded our family’s experience with our dad as somehow unique, a bizarre and embarrassing dysfunction that outsiders couldn’t comprehend. The film was a revelation, and perhaps that answers the “why” that nagged me as I began to recognize so much of my father on the screen. Campbell was conveying — in fact demonstrating — an experience that’s more universal than any of us imagined, and most importantly, true to his chosen vocation, by sharing his pain and loss, he made me feel less alone in mine.

A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.

Talking to the enemy

The greatest challenge for a documentary film also happens to be its primary asset — its connection to real life.

Real life is complicated. It’s fuller and richer, if less theatrical, than any drama fictional cinema can typically produce. But it comes at the expense of easy answers and satisfying conclusions.

Documentaries constitute a sizable portion of my viewing habits, but I understand that their purpose tends to be informational first and entertaining second. I can accept that, as I see almost any artistic venture as an opportunity to learn and grow. Also, as a journalist, I don’t want facts sugarcoated. I don’t insist on happy endings to consider a film screening a worthwhile experience. But I admit there are times when the cold, sober truth gets to be too much. War. Hunger. Displacement. Racism. Alienation. Enough already. There must also be some uplifting elements to the real-life human experience.

Enter Daryl Davis. The subject of an Independent Lens film titled “Accidental Courtesy,” currently showing on PBS as part of Black History Month, Davis’ story is unique to say the least. An accomplished rock ‘n’ roll musician in his younger days, Davis has spent the last two decades reaching out to various leaders and foot soldiers of the American white separatist movement. Davis is black.

The premise seems quite ludicrous until you meet Davis and see how he operates. The son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis grew up all over the world, exposed to an assortment of racial, ethnic and religious environments, and consequently is at ease with people different from him. As an adult, Davis approaches those who would hate him — Ku Klux Klan members, American Nazis and other assorted white supremacists — with a simple proposition: “How you can hate me if you don’t even know me?” His worldly background informs his diplomatically oriented posture: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them, no matter how objectionable you may find them to be.

It’s hard to judge how effective Davis’ quest has been. He boasts about two dozen KKK robes and hoods given to him by former members who left the organization as a result of their friendship with Davis. He maintains cordial relations with many others who remain active in the white power movement. Of one of them, he earnestly proclaims “I consider him my friend,” something that can be difficult to reconcile given the disturbing ideological tenets set forth in their conversations. But his method is one of gentle persuasion. Early on in the film, Davis offers the analogy of losing weight as a gradual and persistent process. He insists he’s not out to convert people; he simply engages them in a respectful and — most importantly — two-way dialogue, after which they may or may not decide to convert themselves. This measure of grace toward hatemongers no doubt raises eyebrows within the civil rights community, but Davis maintains a message of inclusion, that all Americans — even white racists — are countrymen and as such must find common ground.

The discussions are unexpectedly low-key and in some cases lighthearted — as much as they can be when they broach concerns over racial purity and the justification of violence. In one instance, Davis and a Klansman establish a bond through their love of rock ‘n’ roll music, even playfully disputing its original purveyor: Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. That a claim so ridiculous can get caught up in a racially categorized worldview is distressing, if not comically so. Later, Davis secures another Klansman’s commitment to attend his wedding. The marriage would be an interracial one — blasphemy for white separatists — but the Klansman insists that if his “friend” wants him there, he’ll come.

Considering the volatile potential of Davis’ meetings with white racists, it’s surprising then that the most explosive exchange takes place in Baltimore, where several Black Lives Matter activists express their frustration with race relations in that city and offer a bitter reproach of Davis’ engagement tactics. After unleashing a scathing monologue — during which one of them questions the value of collecting two dozen KKK robes in over 20 years’ time — they deny Davis a chance to respond by storming out of the room, refusing even to shake his hand. It’s the only time in the film when his jovial charm fails him. He shrugs off the encounter with the observation that most people, black or white, reserve their bitterest vitriol not for the enemy but for members of their own group deemed to have sold out the cause.

Undeterred, Davis continues his mission. It’s clear that he takes the long view of history, holding firm to the belief that all people, no matter how twisted and hateful their ideology, given time, patience and a friendly ear, have the capacity to change. Whether they do is up to them. While a cynic can look around this country in 2017 and point out the lack of progress, Davis’ faith in his fellow Americans — even the worst among them — is a sentiment that’s hard to dismiss. He has the robes to prove it.

Photo power

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it speaks in a single scream.

Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini shot just such a photo in the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing during a religious festival in Kabul. Rarely have I seen an image so powerful that it immediately brought tears to my eyes, and the Pulitzer Prize Board agreed, awarding Hossaini the prize for breaking news photography.

Hossaini and several of his colleagues are featured in the 2015 documentary “Frame by Frame,” which looks at Afghanistan’s fledgling free press following the 2001 fall of the Taliban and its prohibition on photography of any kind. It’s not an easy job navigating a volatile political and social environment that is one of the most dangerous in the world. Insurgent attacks and government reprisals are common features of the daily news landscape. Female photographers carve themselves a niche in focusing their lenses on the nation’s women, taboo subject matter for their male counterparts, but that, too, comes with peril. When Farzana Wahidy brings her camera into a hospital burn ward to investigate the practice of self-immolation by women in the western city of Herat, officials balk at her presence, citing fears of Taliban violence.

The stories in “Frame by Frame” show a journalism community in its infancy, with its inherent optimism among the young crop of photographers determined to establish a free and vibrant Afghan press after decades of warfare and repression. True, much of that freedom relies on the dwindling U.S. presence in the region, without which the country could easily fall back under Taliban rule. But these photojournalists’ commitment to their homeland — as a Pulitzer winner, Hossaini could go easily leave the country for better, safer work — remains a beacon of hope that Afghanistan can reach its potential for a  peaceful, open society.