Daryl Davis, an R&B pianist who's played with everyone from Bo Diddley to Bill Clinton, is black. His friends are in the KKK. He plays a flaming synthesizer, fingers bouncing off the keys like they sizzle. They burn crosses and irritate him by crediting white boy Elvis Presley with inventing rock and roll. Still, they get along.
In the opening scene of Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, a documentary from director Matthew Ornstein, a Klansman calls up Davis to ask where he can rent a tour bus for a white power rally. Davis offers to loan him his. "Just put some gas in it when you're done," says Davis, as steady as a backbeat.
Every scene that follows is upside-down surreal.
Davis isn't in the KKK. His favorite tourist spot in Washington, D.C., a short drive from his Maryland home, is the exact step where Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that he had a dream. But he's been befriending Klan members for decades, long before think pieces began entreating the left to reach out to the right. He's chummy with grand dragons and great titans and imperial wizards — every level of fantasyland where a supremacist puts on a fancy robe and plays white savior. When one of Davis's pals got promoted to "exalted cyclops," he secretly asked Davis what his new role meant so he wouldn't embarrass himself in front of his club. And when Davis calls a Klan leader "my man," he means it.
In turn, KKK members call Davis a friend. One gave him an official Certificate of Friendship from the Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, printed on the same shiny paper you'd use to award a kindergartner with perfect attendance. Another even made him his child's godfather. How do they reconcile hating black people with respecting one black man? They can't — and that's Davis's goal. Often, he's the only black man they've ever met. His insistence on shaking hands and showing respect — the opposite of the behavior you see on Twitter — patiently chips away at their preconceptions about race. It's like he's trying to carve the Lincoln Memorial with a scalpel.
Every Klan member who quits gives Davis his hood. They're his treasured scalps. And he keeps sitting down with racists, allowing neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep to defend himself as a "white nationalist," not a "white supremacist," until, when Schoep gets passionate about protecting his people from governmental tyranny, Davis finds a spot where he can twist his knife. "Would you compare yourself to Martin Luther King?" Schoep blinks. Well, now that you mention it ...
As a director, Ornstein can't crack what keeps Davis reaching across the Mason-Dixon Line. But Davis has a ready answer. Thanks to his father, a U.S. diplomat, Davis spent his childhood circling the globe. In the '60s, he was in Guinea and Egypt when civil rights marchers took to the streets. He simply didn't know. He stayed naive until he moved back to America and marched in his first Boy Scouts parade. He was the only black kid. People threw rocks. When his dad explained racism, it made no sense to him.
So Davis is quick to say that he started his crusade to answer one question: "How can you hate me if you don't even know me?" That's probably true. But it's hard to shake off the suspicion that Davis also enjoys his celebrity. He's made himself unique. And something in his carriage, the way he folds his hands across his belly like a guru, made me keep up my guard. It doesn't help that Ornstein uses footage from CNN and Geraldo Rivera that stretches back into the '90s while allowing his subject to recite the same up-with-people patter he's been pitching journalists for decades. Yet Davis kept charming Klan members even during the years when the cameras were off. Whether or not he enjoys the spotlight, he's done much of his work in the dark.
The doc is structured around a dozen sit-downs. Davis, large and immovable, is usually on the left, his challengers on the right. And they aren't all in the KKK. A spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center clearly thinks Davis is a loon. The SPLC wants to destroy hate groups, not buy them coffee (or, at his most generous, fly a whole white power family to visit their dad in jail).
Davis's Baltimore meeting with two Black Lives Matter activists goes even worse. (If you're surprised by the idea that allies fight nastier than enemies, then you've never been online.) The young men, both crisp and certain, accuse Davis of wasting his time on the wrong fight. "Where were you when the marches were going on?" they press. Counters an exasperated Davis, "Who gives a shit?" It's the tensest scene in a movie where a Klansman literally tells Davis that if a race war starts, "we intend to finish it." Davis and the BLM protesters are both right and both wrong, united only in their belief that the other is a fool.
When Accidental Courtesy won the Special Jury Award at SXSW, the Black Lives Matter showdown felt like the conversation the country needed to have. What's more powerful: a smile or a scream? Just eight months later, Ornstein had to re-edit the film to include the rise of neo-Nazism — words I never thought I'd have to type in my lifetime — and a late-added closing-credits interview in which Davis, the eternal optimist, soothes, "I think Donald Trump is going to show us the way, whether it's intentional or not." Maybe? His warning that you can’t change minds inside a safe social-media bubble has certainly been proven true. No boxer ever won by staying in his corner. And we're in for a fight.