By Mark Saldana
After having viewed this amazing documentary film, I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with director Matt Ornstein and Daryl Davis of the film. Ornstein is a documentary filmmaker whose last film project is a documentary short about the last mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Daryl Davis, of course, is the subject of his new film. Davis may have a successful career as a musician, but is probably better known for his unusual approach to promoting racial harmony. His buddy Scott Shepard is a former member of the KKK who has become close friends with Daryl and has completely turned his life around. Some of his story is detailed in the documentary. I first sat with Matt Ornstein alone and then joined the three of them all together for a discussion of racism, music, and the negative ramifications of racial division in the U.S.
Mark Saldana: (To Matt Ornstein) How did you first hear about Daryl and what about his approach to race relations inspired you to tell his story?
Matt Ornstein: I first heard about him in a newspaper in England. The headline was something like, “Black Man Walks Up To A KKK Member In A Bar, But This Isn’t A Joke.” And I’m like, alright, I’m curious what this is about and I started looking for Daryl and I contacted him. We met up and did a pre-tape interview. What really caught me about him, is his philosophy on these things is almost Eastern. It’s like he’s fighting a hundred-years war and he knows eventually that it will land on his side because he is right.
Mark: Besides the incident involving some angry “Black Lives Matter” activists, which you included in the film, were there any other confrontations that didn’t make the cut?
Matt: That was the most direct confrontation (the one shown in the film), but there are some contentious moments. The meeting with Thomas Robb (a KKK leader). There is definitely a heated moment there.
Mark: Who came up with the title, Accidental Courtesy?
Matt: I take the credit or blame. Courtesy accidental is a music notation term. It has to do with switching between the black and the white keys. I was trying to be clever. Courtesy Accidental was supposed to be the original title, but at some point, someone flipped it for one of the temp. titles and it just had a better resonance, but it is a vestige of this piano term. I feel that the accidental courtesy is on the part of the Klans members, towards Daryl, but it wasn’t the original intention.
Mark: (To Daryl Davis) Your approach to race relations seems to come from rational thinking, but I also see some similarities to Christian beliefs, or rather, what Christians believe to be the message of Jesus. Do any religious beliefs have any influence on your approach?
Daryl Davis: Well, I am a Christian. I was a deacon in my church at one time. I am a strong believer in God, and I believe in treating others as I want to be treated.
Mark: You obviously have your critics in the Black community and this is shown in the film. How do you feel about those that don’t understand what you’re doing and their methods of activism?
Daryl: There are indeed very different methods of activism. Ultimately, a lot of them want the same end-goal, but choose different avenues to get there–like Martin (Luther King, Jr.) and Malcolm (X). Towards the end, they converged instead of diverged. I’d like to see more of us come together and sit down and talk. How can we arrive at these things together? We may not agree on every point, but don’t walk away from the table. Let’s have that conversation.
Mark: Have you had some negative experiences with the police? That seems to be the main racial issue today.
Daryl: I’ve had dealings with the police. I have sued the police. I have fought the police. I’ve been beaten by the police. I’ve been locked up by the police. I feel that anger with the police, but you know what? I helped get rid of a police chief. She was a racist. She was a sleaze bag and I helped get rid of her. I was involved with the Department of Justice’s investigation of her and we got rid of her. I did not channel that anger to going out in the streets and burning down a CVS and bashing police cars or attacking the police.
Mark: Music has played a large role in breaking down racial barriers and such is the history of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Have you ever had an experience where music became a barrier and had the opposite effect?
Daryl: The music itself, no. The performances, yes. There were some places that would not let me play because of the color of my skin. I was in a band that was all white and I was the only black guy in there and they told me and the band that they would have to bring in a white piano player because blacks were not allowed.
Scott Shepard: The hometown I come from, Indianola, Mississippi, is a town in the Mississippi Delta separated by railroad tracks. For years and years, whites lived on one side and blacks lived on the other. B.B. King came from Indianola. B.B. King did more for race relations, more than anyone I know. Today the tracks are still there, but everyone is mixing and partying, and all that was done by B.B. King. When he first hit the country, that whole town changed.
Daryl: Music plays one of the greatest roles, maybe as great a role as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other Civil Rights Activists. Before Rock ‘N’ Roll, concert halls and theaters, if they allowed black people at all, were segregated. Ropes separated the seats with signs saying, “White Patrons Only” or “Colored Seating Only.” Rock ‘N’ Roll was created by black people and white people liked it and popularized it. For the first time in American history, when these people came out there–Elvis (Presley), Chuck (Berry), whoever–white people and black people could not sit still. They bounced out of their chairs and knocked over those signs and barriers and they began boogieing and dancing in those aisles together.
Mark: (To Scott) As a former member of the KKK, do you have any advice for racist people still out there?
Scott: Daryl’s got a goal and his goal is the breakdown of racial barriers to make things better for all of us. They’ve (racists) got to be open-minded and really take a deep, hard look at themselves. People need to be open-minded and listen. They need to open their hearts and talk. And they got to know the person they’re talking to.
Mark: Daryl, do you have have any advice to these same people and your critics?
Daryl: If you don’t want to open your mind and open your heart, that is stupidity. Let’s get together and talk. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. They may be yelling and screaming at each other. That’s fine, but they’re still talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. I am going to encourage as many people as I can to view this film and start the conversation. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The film gives a platform for conversation to start. Unless we learn how to get along, we’re not going to have to worry about ISIS, Al Qaeda, or whoever because we are going to self-destruct. We are going to destroy each other, and the best way for an enemy to defeat us is to divide and conquer. Right now, we are a divided country.
Accidental Courtesy has one more screening tomorrow (Wednesday, March 16), 10:45 a.m. at the Stateside Theater.