With The Boys in Red Hats (in theaters and on VOD July 16), director Jonathan Schroder mounts a highly personal investigation into the January 2019 Lincoln Memorial standoff between Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activist Nathan Phillips. That incident was made famous by Nick Sandmann’s smirk seen around the world, which immediately turned the teenager into a viral villain, and Schroder, an alumnus of Covington, is upfront about the fact that his documentary aims to clear his alma mater’s (and Sandmann’s) good name. Yet to the surprise of himself, and to us, what he delivers is something more complicated—if, ultimately, still a bit too facile.
Like millions of others, Schroder was angry and embarrassed by the notorious clip of Sandmann arrogantly smiling in a drum-beating Phillips’ face, and his reaction was compounded by his connection to Covington, an all-male institution for Northern Kentucky’s wealthy (and predominantly white) elite. As conveyed through first-person narration set to comical animation that resembles sketches in a school notebook, Schroder’s relationship with Covington was a messy one. Schroder loved the camaraderie and sense of self-worth provided by Covington, but the football scholarship that got him in didn’t shield him from slurs about his poor background (from the absurdly named Sugartit, Kentucky), and on one unforgettable day in class, a revered teacher punched him in the forehead—and he chose to stay silent about it lest he suffer additional discipline and ostracization.
This assault naturally soured Schroder on Covington. However, via a former classmate that he met in in New York City, the filmmaker reconnected with the school and its supportive community, which he presents in The Boys in Red Hats as a place of intense kinship born from rampant entitlement. As he relays, everyone in the surrounding area hated Covington kids because of their in-your-face superiority complex—and that vitriol, in turn, brought Covington’s boys closer together. Chants and fight songs were part of their belligerent us-against-them attitude, including one that went, “That’s alright, that’s OK, you will work for us someday.”
Bolstered by interviews with past and current students, as well as two of the parents who chaperoned that fateful 2019 trip to Washington, D.C.—which was undertaken so the kids could attend the anti-abortion March for Life event—The Boys in Red Hats focuses intently on Covington’s culture because it’s central to the behavior that Sandmann and his cohorts displayed at the Lincoln Memorial. Theirs is a milieu of hermetically sealed homogeneity in which money and privilege begets egomania and cruelty. Schroder recounts how one Covington associate (who refused to appear on camera) told him, “I love my bubble.” In this context—where any perceived threat is met with intimidating pep rally-style chanting, as well as lawsuits to prove one’s own victimhood—it was only natural, Schroder contends, that Sandmann acted as he did, including subsequently suing CNN, The Washington Post and NBCUniversal over their critical reporting.
Schroder believes in Sandmann’s innocence because unedited footage of the confrontation suggests that the Covington kids were initially badgered by a group of Black Israelites, and that Phillips interjected himself into the equation and—whether he intended to be a peacemaker or a provocateur—inflamed it further. Phillips’ potentially suspect background also makes Schroder suspicious about his motivations. Thus, Schroder finds himself, personally and as a storyteller, in an uncomfortable middle ground: wanting to exonerate his Covington brethren as victims of a liberal media that jumped to damning conclusions, while understanding that those conclusions were based not purely on the question of who instigated who first, but on the larger forces that Sandmann and his classmates represented.
Alas, it’s not until 50 minutes into its 87-minute runtime that The Boys in Red Hats gets around to the elephant in the room (and its own title!): the MAGA gear that the Covington kids proudly wore in a show of solidarity with white nationalist sympathizer Donald Trump. By not getting to that central issue sooner, Schroder’s film winds up dithering around the margins for far too long. And though it finally does grapple with this key facet of the entire affair—since Sandmann’s condescending, cheerily antagonistic smugness in the face of a minority epitomized the Trump ethos—it doesn’t do so nearly enough, which is strange considering that Schroder does address Convington’s less-than-savory history with blackface and its students’ rowdiness at the 2019 Lincoln Memorial clash.
“When’s the last white nationalist violent incident of major consequence? They don’t exist anymore,” states Robert Barnes, a lawyer for Covington as well as a Fox News and Infowars pundit. It’s a statement that nicely sums up the willful blindness (and shameful disingenuousness) of the MAGA flock, and is in line with Sandmann’s eventual victimization routine, which was predicated on the underlying notion that his conduct, and worldview, couldn’t possibly be wrong. More than one speaker suggests that things would have never played out as they did—replete with so many public voices rushing to Sandmann’s defense—if the situation’s racial dynamics had been reversed, and The Boys in Red Hats shrewdly refuses to turn a blind eye to those notions, just as it refutes Barnes’ inanity with a montage of news stories about recent mass shootings, all of which were executed by fervent, racist Trumpers.
The Boys in Red Hats is honest about its biases and intentions while taking an admirably even-handed approach to its subject, and in many respects, it gets at the foundational assumptions and opinions that breed intolerant tribalism, and individuals like Sandmann and his MAGA ilk. Still, it stumbles in its closing moments. Surprising Phillips at his front door, and then acting aggrieved when he’s rebuffed, Schroder exhibits the same unwarranted, knee-jerk victimization tendencies that Sandmann does, suggesting that he hasn’t fully wrestled with the entitlement-over-empathy training he received at Covington. Worse, his documentary’s final censure of cable news networks and social media for creating cultures of insularity and divisiveness may be superficially accurate, but in pretending that all bubbles are equal—versus the obvious fact that some extremist groups and ideologies are considerably more dangerous and deadly than others—it takes the easy way out into glib bothsidesism.