Confronting the Klan: A Q&A with ‘Accidental Courtesy’ director Matthew Ornstein
R&B musician Daryl Davis travels the U.S. confronting members of the Ku Klux Klan, asking them why they hate him and other African-Americans.
Documentarian Matthew Ornstein followed Davis through his one-on-ones with white supremacists for the film “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.”
The documentary has been acclaimed on the festival circuit since its March premiere when it won a special jury award at the SXSW Film Festival. It plays at Aspen Filmfest today in Aspen and Saturday in Carbondale.
“Accidental Courtesy” is scheduled for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release in December, followed by a wider release, a springtime broadcast on PBS’s “Independent Lens” and, later, it will stream on Netflix.
Aspen Times Arts Editor Andrew Travers talked to Ornstein about his movie on Wednesday in the Aspen Film office.
Andrew Travers: How did you meet Daryl Davis?
Matthew Ornstein: I read a newspaper article about Daryl maybe three years ago and I reached out to him. I did not hear back and we tried again a year later. I was in New York for a shoot so I went down to D.C. (to meet Davis). He ended up telling me some of the stories that would be in the movie on the ride home from there.
AT: Did he end up being a willing subject?
MO: These are issues that are central to his life, so he was excited to explore them on camera. People who aren’t used to being in films sometimes find the process mystifying, in terms of the crew and the set up and how long things can take. But on the whole he was a good sport.
AT: White supremacist groups have been more public recently than they have in a long time, with the exposure they’ve gotten through Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. How do you want the film to speak to this fraught moment for the country and to the rising profile of hate groups?
MO: There’s a section at the beginning of the movie where we explain who the KKK are and what they do. In the time between when we premiered the film in March and now, that section seems more and more unnecessary. People who are watching are caught up with what the modern face of hate in America is. So I hope it opens that conversation up. For people who are blissfully unaware it still exists, it’s a reminder.
AT: Davis is a controversial man and has clashed with some younger African-American activists like Kwame Rose and Tariq Toure of Black Lives Matter. What do you make of the controversy?
MO: It was interesting how much of the press from SXSW focused on that aspect of the movie. People have told me at a lot of the screenings that the inter-generational conflict between black civil-rights leaders is a very real thing — that the traditional movement and the modern movement, which is very decentralized, don’t see a lot of use for each other. I think that maybe we’ve tapped into a fascinating larger subject.
Kwame, who has done screenings with us, and Daryl, who has done screenings with us, they both have interesting things to say. It’s not a right-wrong issue, but in some sense, they’re both right. The economic factors that Kwame and Tariq highlight as being more important are essential. And what Daryl does affects lives both directly and indirectly through the example it puts forward.
AT: The intense face-to-face meetings and in-person communication also point to an older generation’s approach.
MO: In the modern era, we do anything to avoid direct communication — there’s messaging and any number of online platforms. Daryl’s thing is that he sits down with people in person. It’s beyond old school. But it’s worked really well for him. It was a reminder that there is no substitute for direct conversation.
AT: How much does music serve as a common ground? Does being a great musician help get Daryl in the door to talk to these guys?
MO: A hundred percent, and he’d tell you the same thing. A lot of the places Daryl is meeting people, he would be there with his band. And in a small town, that makes you like a celebrity. So he would see that crack in the door. There’s a story in the movie where a guy says he’s never seen a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. Well, Daryl has to tell him where Jerry Lee Lewis learned to play piano like that (laughs). And for that person, that was the beginning of a long unraveling of a bunch of racist lies.
AT: What do you hope people take away from the screening in Aspen?
MO: Obviously this is a pretty progressive town, but we all know people who know people — there are just a few degrees of separation to the kinds of communities we depict in the film. I definitely hope that people see it as something that’s not someone else’s problem. It’s all our problem on some level. As long as they walk out having a conversation, I’m happy. They may disagree with his methods, but it’s an important conversation.
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