It’s clear Davis feels an enormous responsibility to preserve the ugliest aspects of American history while forging a brighter future through difficult conversations with difficult people. It’s all on full display in Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, which provides a Klu Klux Klan history lesson for viewers, as well as a model for effective civil discourse even with people who have the most extreme points of view. Perhaps most importantly, the film is another vehicle for hope and change in challenging times.
Ornstein felt a strong obligation to Davis and the cause throughout the production process. “You’re sort of coloring how people are going to see someone or see an issue, or you’re inspiring them, or not. It’s a big responsibility and you have to take it seriously.”
What makes Davis particularly interesting — and controversial — is his sincere, earnest effort to actually be friends with white supremacists. In fact, he even got a phone call from one in the middle of our interview. He spoke to his racist buddy briefly and pleasantly, and then after hanging up, described the mystery man as a “violent white supremacist” from a hate group known as The Base. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the militant neo-Nazi organization views non-white people as enemies of the white race and envisions a coming race war.
“I’d like to get where he’s at,” Ornstein tells MovieMaker, and references a moment in the film when Davis sits down with a Christian pastor who is both a racist and a Holocaust denier. “Darrell says, ‘I’m his friend. Even if he’s not my friend, I’ll still consider myself to be his friend.’ And that kind of says it all to me. I mean, if we could take even a little bit of that out into the world, we’d be getting a different result.”
Surprisingly, the most intense exchange Davis has with anyone on camera in Accidental Courtesy is with another activist. Kwame Rose, a then-21-year-old Black Lives Matter protester, tells Davis: “Infiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people. White supremacists can’t change. But I can change your mind because you look like me. You ain’t doing nothing but collecting something that is going to build your own credibility. You’re nothing but a pimp in a pulpit.”
“And you’re nothing but ignorant,” Davis responds in his usual calm demeanor.
Ornstein describes the scene as “probably the craziest thing I’ve had on set.”
“I don’t think anyone knew how to handle it,” he remembers. “Their goals are in alignment, so I certainly didn’t even consider the possibility that it might be as explosive as it was.”
The unexpected clash perfectly illustrates the price Daryl Davis pays for going behind enemy lines to combat racism instead of marching in picket lines. He regularly faces criticism from white people and Black people, in person and online, who don’t approve of his strategy. Many activists rage against the machine in public demonstations because they recognize the systemic roots of racism in a nation built on slavery.
But Davis counters, “Who’s behind the system? Individuals.”
“Racism is multifaceted,” he points out. He’s particularly concerned about violent lone wolf operatives, like Dylan Roof, who shot and killed nine Black people worshipping in their church in 2015, or Patrick Crusius, a mass shooter who targeted Mexican immigrants when storming an El Paso, Texas Walmart in 2019, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others.
“These are individuals,” he stresses. “If the system is producing them, and all you are addressing is the system, what about them?”
“You can compel someone’s behavior with the law but you can not compel their attitude, and that comes with education and exposure and dialogue,” Davis says. “I’ve always said that ignorance breeds fear, and fear — if not kept in check and addressed — will breed hatred and anger, because we get angry at the things that frighten us. We get angry at the things that we hate. And if that’s not kept in check, that will breed destruction.”
Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America is now streaming on Amazon Prime.