Filmmaker Matt Ornstein has a background in music videos and short films (one of which, Atlantis, was about that space shuttle’s last launch and starred Jason Ritter), but the story of Daryl Davis called to him to the point where he had to make a documentary about it. Together with his brother and co-producer Noah, Matt made Accidental Courtesy to capture famed African American musician Davis’s passion for collecting robes of former Ku Klux Klan members he’d befriended. The film, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, February 13 at 10 pm [check local listings], was “well timed for an election year even more charged with divisive rhetoric than usual,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety, and “offers an entertaining and inspirational message of rapprochement. The differing responses Accidental Courtesy is likely to evoke in viewers make it a great conversation-starter for public and educational forums.”
Matt stopped by to talk to us about how this film became his own obsession, its relevance in our current charged political climate, how safe former Klan members feel, the arguments against Daryl’s philosophy from Black Lives Matters activists, and more.
What inspired you to make a film about Daryl Davis and his unusual hobby? How did you first learn about it?
I first became aware of Daryl from a newspaper article about him and was immediately fascinated. I wanted to know why did it, what enabled him to move in those circles. That began what would ultimately be a three-year process.
What were some of the challenges in making Accidental Courtesy?
With any film about a living subject who is tackling a problem that has no foreseeable end in sight, your third act can be tricky. Als,o the logistics of meeting up with some of the people he talks to in the film were, needless to say, complicated. Thankfully my brother [and co-producer] Noah handled most of that aspect.
Race relations hit a low point this past election year and there seemed to be a resurgence of white supremacist activity. How do you think this film can be used to spark a conversation about that, how can it help us evolve past it? The key question Daryl asks is so important: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Would you use that as a conversation starter?
That phrase, which is often repeated in the film is very important, because it is addressing the core concept that a lot of people’s fear of other races is rooted in simply not having any meaningful contact with them, not “knowing them.” When I see this tremendous fear of immigrants today, particularly Muslim ones, I think how many Muslims does someone from Kentucky know? (I’m talking to you, Mitch McConnell.) This film hopefully can help to start a conversation on that subject in general.
The resurgence of white supremacy we are seeing is sort of a last stand of a doomed way of thinking, in my opinion. But once that is gone we still have to address the underlying fear that these hate groups capitalize on.
Listen to Daryl and Matt interviewed on Southern California’s KPCC radio:
Along those lines, there will likely be some criticism of Daryl’s point of view, and you include some of that like his encounter with Black Lives Matters activists, for example. But what would you like people to take away from Accidental Courtesy, about Davis’s philosophy of befriending Klan members to try to help them see the light? How would you respond to other Black Lives Matters activists and people of color who may disagree with or even get angry at what Davis is trying to do?
Daryl operates under the principle that if you aren’t hearing viewpoints that are distasteful to you, that they are also not hearing yours. I think there’s wisdom in that. We saw this last election cycle how not doing that ended in not only disaster for this country, but a lot of infighting and yelling into echo chambers and news that serves to reinforce what you already believe. The economic arguments that Tariq and Kwame present in the film have a tremendous amount of validity, but in no way does this diminish the importance of what someone like Daryl does. If we all took the time to speak to even one or two people we disagree with and both really hear them and be heard that alone would begin to make a difference.
There have also been more white supremacists and KKK members who have left that world recently (including Derek Black). Would you ever do a follow-up piece on more of the people who have left that belief system behind and why? Has any ex-KKK person approached you after learning about the film, to tell their own stories?
I would love to do a follow-up, both exploring more people who have left and the current mainstreaming of some of these groups. I haven’t personally been contacted, but I know Daryl and Scott Shepherd (reformed Klansman seen in the film) have been, and I’m grateful for them continuing the work. The psychology of why people join groups like this and the reasons why they eventually leave I think are tremendously valuable, not only for understanding the Klan, but other extreme groups like militias and ISIS.
Have you worried about any threats from white supremacists after they’ve seen or learned of this film? How did the ones in the film react to it (if they’ve seen it)?
Have not had the privilege of screening it to that crowd yet but am very open to doing so. Every person you see in the film not only believes in what they say on camera, but that history will judge them to have been the wiser. So I don’t expect any of them will have a problem with their depictions.
Was it difficult to get both current and former Klan members to be in the film?
Yes, there is a lot of suspicion of outsiders and sometimes reluctance to expose themselves. Some people we very much wanted in the film didn’t want to appear on camera. But the ones that did provide a good sampling of that mindset I think.
Does former Klansman Scott Shepherd worry for his own safety, since he’s now an anti-racism activist?
I think he worries a little, but I also know he is very committed to speaking out and being heard. Scott is not only very brave but also has done the interior work and understands himself and his motivations better than anyone else on camera in this film.
What are some documentaries that were influential to you or in the back of your mind when making your film?
So many docs and filmmakers inspired us, some more overtly than others. [The films of] The Maysles Brothers, DA Pennebaker, Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple. I could go on and on.
How hard was it to get the rights to all the great music in the film? (Since Daryl has lived an incredible musical life.)
Very hard. We wound up making an original score for most of it. We were already using several Charles Bradley songs and we were lucky enough to get (composer/producer) Tom Brenneck and some of the key Daptone players who had made those songs to do our score giving it a cohesive feel. It came out great in my opinion. Some of the other songs we decided we just had to pay for even though we couldn’t really afford it. Rights are really upsetting because you know none of the money is going to the artist.
What film projects are you working on or planning to work on next?
We have a couple different projects in the works, another doc and a multi-part show. But I’m a bit superstitious and feel like when I talk about things it dooms them prior to their inception. If you like this film definitely keep an eye out though, we’ll be back sooner than you might think.
Hear more from Daryl Davis in this LA Times piece: “A Black Man’s Quest to Quell the Racism of the KKK, One Robe at a Time”
Daryl Davis acting in a scene from HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire: