Accidental Courtesy: a brave take on American race

I had heard about Accidental Courtesy before I found myself in front of my Roku Box, with a rare free evening, searching PBS features because that’s how nerdy I am. Accidental Courtesy, I knew thus far, is the story of a black man who seems to have made it his mission to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan – and who has succeeded in changing many individuals’ racist views, to the point that he has built up a collection of robes donated to him by reformed Klansmen. However, It took watching the movie to learn that our hero, for want of a better word, is an active musician: Daryl Davis, schooled in early rock ’n’ roll, a fan of Elvis who nonetheless has to inform some of his white supremacist friends that Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like actually invented the genre. (Daryl has played with Berry, and claims to have been friends with all of the Sun Records Millionaire Quartet.)

Davis’ “day job” affords the movie some continuity, music  being the great soother of the soul, so to speak. But it’s not really about that. It’s about his “accidental” moonlighting. Certainly, Davis is a better and braver man than most. I can only applaud his willingness to offer assistance to the wife and mother in an avowedly white supremacist family, with whom he’d sparred on television, offering to drive her several hundred miles after her racist husband was sent down for twenty years. The Klan had, it turned out, abandoned her. Davis’ outreach not only changed the mother/wife’s views, but that of her daughter, who at the age of 12 had appeared on the same TV show sharing her parents’ racism, but recanted that upbringing to the point of an interracial marriage.
Though there are other such examples of Davis’ impact, Accidental Courtesy is not a feel good film. Davis comes up against the brutal reality of the Black Lives Matter movement when he travels to Baltimore in the midst of the 2015 uprising over police killings and systematic racism. In an attempt to elevate his own activities with two highly dubious young activists, Davis patronizes them and calls them ignorant. The table at which they are sat just about explodes with their indignity, and then explodes some more when another Baltimore activist, this one older than the departed duo yet younger still than Davis, sits down and gives our no-longer “hero” an absolute earful. It’s to the credit of the moviemakers that this painful scene is included, unedited, with the film crew shown deflated and distraught, and Davis on the brink of tears. If there’s a moral to this element of the story, it’s that effective protest movements stretch across a long line, with collective confrontation playing a necessary role alongside individual cross-cultural conversations.
Accidental Courtesy is bookended, perhaps inadvertently, by yet more current events. Early in the film, there are several clips of White Supremacist groups promoting Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. And though it is unclear whether the film was finished before the November 8 election, there is a shocking post-movie addendum. A Missouri-based Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Frank Ancona, is shown sitting with Davis, proclaiming his friendship for the black man alongside him. Davis predicts that before long Aconza will leave the Klan and hand over his robe. It didn’t happen. On February 17 2017  – yes, this month – Ancona died from gunshot wounds. The police are investigating.

Daryl Davis with the newly deceased Frank Ancona.

For those of us in the States with access to PBS, Accidental Courtesy is still available for free viewing. Beyond that, it’s well worth the modest expense at iTunes or elsewhere. It’s not flawless, and the Baltimore “exchange” is excruciating viewing. But in a country that can simultaneously “elect” a President endorsed by white supremacist while the Oscars champion black lives, it’s an indication of how the arc of progress swings backwards and forwards, one painful swing at a time.

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August 2021