Film Review – Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America
Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America
Well-meaning in its goals, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America suffers from a lack of real discussion about its subject matter and some very shoddy film making. Daryl Davis is a middle-aged black man who has worked with some of the most famous musicians in the world and is still performing today. But in his downtime he has an interesting hobby of going out and meeting with members of hate groups, especially the Ku Klux Klan, and listening and talking to them trying to figure out what it is that makes them the way they are with the overall goal of becoming friends with them and getting them to give up their racist beliefs, and in the end to use the material he has gotten to make a museum about the Klan.
The idea of a man going out and challenging racism head-on with understanding and listening is an intriguing idea and we see some of the success that he has had over the years as he shows off Klan cloaks that he has been given by former members. Yet the film lacks a coherent structure with several scenes becoming very repetitive about Daryl’s mission, and is poorly introduced. It starts all right with Daryl mentioning who is and then what he does but then we jump around to scenes showing the Lincoln Memorial and the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood during his “I Have a Dream” speech. From there we see Daryl going to a music store and also some video of the Klan and Daryl talking using CNN footage.
The use of music is a great detriment to the film in that it plays so loudly over so many scenes that it actually makes it hard to hear what people are saying. If it was only meant for us to hear the music and appreciate it then it was placed too awkwardly for that to be the case. It causes more confusion, especially when it appears over many random clips of Daryl just walking around a city, seemingly serving no purpose beyond making the film longer. With all that music blaring it is difficult to focus on what it is the filmmaker wants to accomplish. Adding to this confusion is when ideas like the Southern Poverty Law Center being out there to defeat these hate groups, and the question of why blacks are being persecuted by police more, and also some history of famous music originating from black individuals are brought up at random moments but are quickly dropped with no real questions or debates about what these have or do not have in common with Daryl’s mission, which makes it unclear why they were brought up in the first place.
We also do not get a huge sense about who Daryl is as a person or about his history. We know he played with some of the most famous musicians and he is on his crusade, but as a man we are not given a whole lot of information. Halfway through the film it is randomly mentioned that he is married to a white woman but that is all we hear about his personal life. We know his mission and when we get down to it the film is a lot of him talking to Klan members and them debating (when the music isn’t playing for once). We get to see him in action and see some of his success stories, which is initially interesting but then becomes a lot of the same things over and over. There is only one person where we get a better sense of where his racism came from and how Daryl changed him. Then the film goes on and on with random scenes of them in Washington D. C. where he goes over the same spot MLK Jr. stood and talks about the black man who really designed the city. All interesting except for the fact that we heard all this at the beginning of the film and now we just get videos of these two out and about that adds nothing.
The part where the film becomes the most interesting for me was when Daryl talks to some young people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore where they start to question what exactly Daryl’s goals are with his experiment, and whether it helps the cause of African Americans. They talk about wanting black institutions and helping out African Americans as a group and not really caring about Daryl’s mission, especially the museum which they want no part in. This brings up an interesting debate that becomes more aggressive on both sides, but when Daryl calls one man ignorant since he dropped out of college it all but ends the conversation and the leader of Black Lives Matter becomes very agitated with him and tells him off. What made that scene really interesting is that we are actually getting into a debate about what is really helpful in dealing with racism. Most of us see the Klan and racism as bad so Daryl’s mission, while good in concept, may not be really productive or even worthwhile. Here we had a debate and yet Daryl, who appears to be willing to listen and politely debate with white supremacists, becomes more aggressive and unwilling to listen in this moment.
This scene has apparently been debated before and Daryl claims it was actually more aggressive than shown in the film with these young men wanting to punch him. Okay, that may have played a part in his reaction but what the film shows me is someone who is supposed to be open to debating different beliefs who instead appears to be getting more involved in tearing down an individual. If some of these ideas had been explored more the film would have opened up some really interesting ideas about racism and different viewpoints between young and old, and what part history plays in the current troubles we have in this country, and does it matter.
By the end of the this ninety minute film I felt like I had gotten the same amount of information about Daryl as I would have obtained from reading a quick two page article. Nothing is really explored about racism in any great detail or even in getting to know the film’s main protagonist. Director Matthew Ornstein obviously finds this concept interesting and thinks showing bits of it is sufficient but there is not enough here to makes this a worthwhile endeavor that a few web searches on Daryl wouldn’t also accomplish.