There’s a great little-known 1936 film called “Black Legion,” in which Humphrey Bogart — not yet a big star — plays a disgruntled factory worker. He resents immigrants and listens to radio hosts preaching about “America for Americans.”
Bogart’s character enlists in a group, the Black Legion, that looks a lot like the Ku Klux Klan in everything but name. At the sign-up meeting, someone asks hopefully, “Don’t we get a uniform or something?”
Then we see the uniforms: the robes, the hoods, the fancy stripes. In that moment, the movie nails something about the adolescent appeal of such a group. Yes, it’s all well and good to join forces to hate others, but the really cool thing is the slick outfits, complete with achievement badges.
I thought of this while watching a fascinating and bizarre documentary, “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race &America.” Filmmaker Matthew Ornstein focuses on Mr. Davis, an African-American musician who has made headlines for his unorthodox approach to dissolving racial hatred.
Davis makes it his business to befriend members of the KKK. He figures that by establishing an honest, human contact between individuals, he will get these folks to renounce their racism.
The crazy thing is, it seems to work. And when they see the light, these former Grand Dragons or Imperial Wizards or Crystal Blue Persuasions (I might be wrong about that last one) turn around and give their robes and their KKK doo-dads to Davis. He’s putting together a museum of the stuff.
Davis makes an interesting subject. The son of a foreign service officer, he spent his childhood in outposts around the world, thus growing up unaware of homegrown bigotry. At age 10, carrying the flag in a Boy Scouts parade in Massachusetts, he was bewildered when white people threw garbage at him. “They must not like Boy Scouts,” he remembers thinking.
Since then, Davis has carried on a one-man crusade, asking people how they could hate him when they don’t even know him.
The film is engaging, if generic in its approach. And it raises some issues that surely demand deeper exploration.
One of the biggest of those comes when Davis travels to meet with Black Lives Matter organizers in Baltimore. It does not go well.
The reasons for that might require another movie. In the meantime, Daryl Davis assembles his collection: all those bright shiny robes signifying different Klan levels, a bizarre monument to a pathetic subculture.
“Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race &America” (3 stars)
Documentary portrait of Daryl Davis, a black musician who befriends Ku Klux Klan members in hopes of getting them to renounce racism — a tactic that actually works. The film raises issues that should be delved into deeper, but it’s a fascinating character study of a stubborn man.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for language
Showing: Grand Illusion