Chicago Bluesman, R&B musician, keyboardist, actor, lecturer and author Daryl Davis has played with such musicians as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, and Bill Clinton. But besides his musical career, he has another vocation, one that is both seemingly dangerous and seen as controversial by some: in his efforts to improve race relations, he engages in personal connections with members of hate groups and the Ku Klux Klan. Davis’s motto is to establish dialogue: “When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.”
Davis, who is African-American and the subject of Matthew Ornstein’s documentary “Accidental Courtesy,” calmly confronts hate groups with the question “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Is Davis being foolhardy or has he tapped into a wisdom that helps create change? The movie shows him talking with men and women with the most racist and segregationist views. While he obviously does not agree with them, he allows them respectfully to talk about their ideology. Through hospitality, respect, the willingness to listen, logic, history, facts, and dialogue, he has managed to erode dozens of Klan members’ ideologies to the point that they have left the Klan and have surrendered their ceremonial robes and hoods to him. He hopes to open a museum one day for these artifacts because they are part of American history. At least one state ended up dissolving its KKK chapters after Davis changed its leadership’s way of thinking. Many former members and current members who have developed tremendous respect for him consider him their friend.
Interestingly but not surprising is the power of music that opened the doors of dialogue and rapprochement. Some of Davis’ Klan renunciates got to befriend him when they heard him play music and deeply enjoyed that experience.
However, not everyone agrees with Davis’ methods. Some of the most unsettling and tense moments in the movie are those when he gets hostile responses from Black Lives Matters activists in Baltimore, who angrily dismiss his mission as debasing and a waste of time that would have been better spent in activism endorsed by the movement.
Well-timed for the ever more divisiveness that the election year has brought to the US and the ever increasing racist climate, “Accidental Courtesy” is a thought-provoking documentary that incites dialogue and debate, is inspirational, and gives us hope that change can occur between seemingly irreconcilable people when peaceful methods are used to bridge the gap and dispel ignorance and fear.
Accidental Courtesy opens in theaters in New York on Friday, January 6, and will be aired on PBS on February 13, 2017.