By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — The original title of Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America was Courtesy Accidental, which is a musical term. It made sense given that the star of the documentary, Daryl Davis, is a notable R&B and blues musician, having played all over the world with legendary musicians such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. However, as director Matt Ornstein explains, during one of the test screenings someone wrote Accidental Courtesy instead and audiences were seemingly more receptive to it. And since Daryl Davis has become most famous for his extracurricular work in befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan, you could say the new title makes sense too; as in, that has to be an accident, right?
“How can you hate me when you don’t know me?” Davis asks his supposed adversaries throughout the film. It’s a good question, and one that must work, as Davis has been successfully befriending, and often converting, members of the KKK and other identified racists for “20 to 25 years,” Ornstein says.
That said, “He doesn’t go in trying to make a hard sell,” Ornstein adds. He doesn’t try to convert anyone, or tell them to get out of that life. “He has lunch with them, he’s friends with them. He starts there.” Davis’s old-school methods of personal, face-to-face interactions in the impersonal age of social media are the likely reasons for his success.
Ornstein’s reasons for wanting to document Davis’s life and capture it on film are pretty self-explanatory. How many others have attempted such a bold idea?
“I read a newspaper article about Daryl and was pretty interested, just because we come at this issue [of racism] from the same angle over and over again. And here is someone doing something different and I wanted to know why he did it. I had so many questions.”
Perhaps Davis’s modus operandi was born out of naiveté; it seems like it’d be easier to slay a dragon than convert a Grand Dragon. Yet, he kept asking that question: “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?” Asking the question seemed to work, as many of the Klan members had never met a black person, or bothered to speak with one. And sometimes that’s all it took to make them think otherwise.
Speaking of terrible names, Dragons and Grand Wizards? C’mon, KKK. That’s pretty lame.
Spending his early years abroad, the young Davis didn’t physically experience racism until he came home when he was older. “His initial goal [was] him trying to understand racism,” Ornstein explains. “Suddenly he wants to know why people dislike him because of his skin, which led him down a road he never thought he’d be on.
In his travels across the United States over the years, he’s collected robes and other artifacts from friends who have left the Klan, slowly building a collection in hopes of eventually opening a museum of Klan memorabilia, so to speak.
Ornstein said his goal with the film was “trying to explore [Daryl’s] psychology.” He continues: “[Daryl] tries to spend time with people and that’s a lost art…I saw a tangible effect he’s had.”
When asked what it was like to make such a bold documentary about relevant issues, Ornstein responds that “it’s been an inspiring process for me.”
“But I was definitely uncomfortable sometimes,” he laughs.
Accidental Courtesy received the 2016 SXSW Special Jury award for Portrait Documentary and the 2016 Nashville Public Television Human Spirit Award. It will be available on Netflix in the spring.
Accidental Courtesy screens during this year’s CUFF Docs festival at the Globe Cinema, which is happening Nov. 17-20. The film screens Nov. 17, 7 p.m. with Matt Ornstein in attendance.AB, Accidental Courtesy, Alberta, CUFF.Docs, Daryl Davis, Globe Cinema, Matt Ornstein, racism in America, unlikely friendships