Race relations are fast becoming the major theme of this year’s SXSW. On Saturday—the second day of the fest—controversy erupted when Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is on track to be the first U.S. Olympic athlete to wear a hijab, was asked to remove the headscarf in order to take her festival badge photo at the registration desk. To add insult to injury, they then issued her an ID bearing the name “Tamir Muhammad.” And on Sunday afternoon, sparks flew during a post-screening Q&A for the documentary Accidental Courtesy, a film chronicling African-American blues musician Daryl Davis’s attempts to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan in order to help them change their racist ways.
Davis famously killed former Imperial Wizard Roger Kelly with kindness, convincing him to leave the KKK. He did the same with Bob White, a former Grand Dragon and ex-Baltimore police officer. In total, he claims to have disrobed around 25 Klansmen. During the documentary, he pays a visit to Baltimore where he sits down with a pair of Black Lives Matter Activists—Kwame Rose, a 21-year-old college dropout who famously called out Geraldo Rivera on national television, and Tariq Toure, a poet and writer. Both are influential community organizers and activists who played sizeable roles in their city’s protests following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
In the film, the trio sat down at a Baltimore bar for a chat. Thing get heated when the two young men question why Davis has spent the past thirty years trying to get white people to overcome their racism instead of helping his own people.
“What does that do for people?” Rose asks of Davis in the film. “Infiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people.” He added, “Befriending a white person who doesn’t have to go through the struggles of you, me… that’s not an accomplishment. That’s a new friend. That’s somebody you can call.”
“And this is coming from a dropout,” Davis shoots back, condescendingly.
“You don’t tell Steve Jobs he ain’t successful. He don’t have no college degree. Bill Gates ain’t got no college degree,” Rose replies. “Neither does Monica Lewinsky,” says Davis. “OK, shit, and what?” Rose says. “She’s giving blowjobs in the White House and doing whatever she was doing…” “…Well, maybe you could give Obama a blowjob and make a lot of money, too,” interrupts Davis.
With that, the two young men call Davis “disrespectful” and leave. At that point, Black Lives Matter community organizer JC Faulk enters, and berates Davis for the “reprehensible” way he treated the activists.
“Just like the young man said to you, you could have done a whole lot more work in the black community from the ‘90s to now to move our people forward rather than coming in here trying to uplift somebody because you got a hood off of their head,” exclaims Faulk, adding, “I don’t give a shit about you, or your KKK hoods! Don’t come to Baltimore doing this shit again. Don’t come back here.”
During the post-screening Q&A session following the first showing of Accidental Courtesy at SXSW, things got testy. After an audience member questioned the BLM interaction in the film, Davis again took the opportunity to lay into Rose (who was not present) and defend the discourteous way he treated him on camera.
“As the man said, he’s a 21-year-old dropout,” Davis said of Rose.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s about race. There are many controversial topics out there—abortion, nuclear weapons, the 2nd Amendment, guns, whatever, the war in Iraq,” he continued. “You’re going to be on one side, somebody’s going to be on the other side. Invite those people to the table. Sit down and talk. Because when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. They may be yelling and screaming or pounding the table, but at least they’re talking, they’re not fighting.”
Davis then accused the Black Lives Matter activists—Rose, Toure, Faulk, and an unnamed party—of attempting to fight him (which is not shown in the film).
“It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. You saw the violence almost erupt when the talking ceased,” he said, referring to the BLM Baltimore sequence. “We got a little loud, sure. The film did not show you that [the Black Lives Matter activists] came over to the table and it almost erupted in a fisticuffs. [Producer] Noah Ornstein here had to get in between us. Four of them wanted to beat me up. I didn’t want to stand up because I didn’t want to fight. And [Ornstein] prevented that.”
Then, the same audience member again challenged Davis on the way he treated the Black Lives Matter activists in the film, saying he sided with the members of BLM.
“They showed you respect, but you didn’t show them respect,” the man said. “You showed the Klan members more respect than you showed those gentlemen there.”
“You didn’t see the entire thing,” Davis replied. “You only saw a snippet of what went on that day. I’ve dealt with a lot of black supremacists as well as white supremacists, and supremacy of any kind is wrong, and I address both black and I address both white. There’s a difference between being ignorant and being stupid…. For me, an ignorant person is someone who makes the wrong decision or a bad choice because he or she does not have the proper facts.”
“If you give that person the facts and the proper information you have alleviated that ignorance, and they make the right decision,” he went on. “A stupid person is someone who has the facts, who has the proper information, and still makes the wrong decision. The facts were not coming out of that guy’s mouth. I presented the facts, some of which were presented in the film, some of which were not presented in the film.” The audience member continued to press Davis on the offensive and dismissive way he treated the Black Lives Matter activists in the film versus the polite and courteous way he treats Klan members while getting in their good graces, which prompted Davis to reply: “When it was my turn to talk, who got up and walked away? It wasn’t me.”