Director: Matthew Ornstein
Daryl Davis is a fascinating human being, and this documentary, focused solely on him and his life’s mission, is compelling, thought provoking, and absolutely stellar. Daryl Davis is a musician who has played with everyone from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry, passing through Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash. As a blues and R&B musician he clearly has had a lot of success. He’s also appeared on HBO’s The Wire and on several stage plays on and off Broadway. That’s pretty awesome on its own, and yet none of these accomplishments are the focus of this excellent documentary. Instead the film focuses on the unlikely relationship that Davis has forged with a little institution known as the Ku Klux Klan.
Somehow, someway, Daryl Davis has been able to be seen by many Klan members as the personable, affable, and likable person he is, overcoming the fact that Davis is in fact a black man. Many Klan leaders and members go so far as considering Davis a friend, a good man even, someone they have invited into their homes, broken bread with, forming the most unlikely of connections. When people talk about strange bedfellows from now on I will only think of this man. Yet Davis neither condones nor accepts the Klan ideology. He is realistic that this organization is a source of moral evil in the world, but he is also the first to acknowledge that ignoring it or condemning it either accomplishes nothing or fans the flames. When I used to live in Florida and work in a restaurant I was alarmed, shocked, and sickened when I noticed that our produce came from a business called “Triple K Fruit Farms”. We don’t talk about it as a living institution, but the KKK is not dead, nor is it dormant. It still lives and thrives on hatred, fear, and violence. Davis states at the beginning of the documentary that people’s fears of the other are normal, but when the fear becomes hatred, that is when danger occurs.
So what is a black man extremely aware of the hatred his skin color evokes in some to do? Davis has decided to take the road, to borrow from the poet who gives his name to Davis’ own elementary school, not taken. Davis believes that as long as communication is happening, even if angry or confrontational, then it is a success, the dialogue is kept open. With this approach Davis has been able to collect over two dozen KKK robes, each one symbolizing someone who eventually left and repudiated the Klan due to the influence, friendship, of this miraculous man. We get to see conversations between Davis and the former Klan members he has affected, as well as some men very much still active in the hate group. It becomes clear that Davis knows how to communicate with even the most deplorable people. By tapping into their humanity, and showing his, he is able to make subtle differences. His game is a long one, and he is a very patient man.
Lest the movie only focus on the amazing man Davis clearly is, we also see late in the film a confrontation between the documentary’s subject and three young Black Lives Matter activists who see him as a traitor. Someone who has wasted his life on what they believe to be lost causes. I guess that this specific moment could be seen from two perspectives. Some might find the three accusers as sympathetic activists with a worthy and noble cause, and I believe their mission to be valid, but not their accuses and attacks. Davis has infiltrated a system designed to not keep him just out, but to outright annihilate him. Even the white anti-KKK activists Davis meets with neither understand his approach nor have ever attempted to follow it. Davis is a unique individual and he has made a difference, even though his way to go about things is unorthodox at best.
We talk so much about having conversations and dialogues that revolve around race, racism, and identity politics. At a time when Trump, the Alt Right, Bannon and Breitbart, and white nationalists and supremacists are feeling put down, not listened to, attacked and persecuted (regardless of the sheer absurdity of this mentality), belittling, poking fun, and criticizing them is just making matters worse. We could all take a cue from this singular man depicted in this stellar documentary, we might learn something, begin an actual conversation, and we very well could make a difference. Call me naive or an idealist but it would seem worth a shot. What have we got to lose? How much do we have to gain? Which one outweighs the other?