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.