It’s always great when you get a day of SXSW where everything basically goes right. Despite daylight savings time interfering with a decent amount of sleep, day three of SXSW was unquestionably the best day of the festival so far. Two of the picks Kayleigh and I made in our preview guide surpassed even our high expectations and we closed the night out with the combo of an open bar courtesy of the cultural ambassadors of Atlanta and conversation with Austin musician Stuart Leach at one of our favorite local clubs, Cheer Up Charlie’s. But anyway, back to those movies.
First on our slate was Accidental Courtesy, an extremely interesting and topical examination of racism in America through the perspective of Daryl Davis, a renown pianist who previously backed up Chuck Berry and now travels the country interviewing members of the KKK and other hate groups in order to find out how they can hate someone like him without ever having met him before. Though the film is about Davis’ approach to racial diplomacy, it’s also about the different strategies activists utilize to achieve their goals and the passionate arguments they have about their effectiveness.
Though Davis is an amazingly charming man and it’s easy to see why he is able to get along so well with people who want to hate him, I was initially concerned that Accidental Courtesy would be a light and one sided documentary aimed at making white people feel good about a very polite form of activism. But director Matt Ornstein approaches the larger subject of activism with care and objectivity, giving considerable time to Black Lives Matter organizers who have a different viewpoint from Davis and reasonable apprehension towards his methods. One of the film’s most powerful sequences is a heated conversation between Davis, Kwame Rose and Tariq Nasheed, with the BLM activists first questioning the amount of time Davis has devoted to this cause and his desire to start a museum of KKK artifacts and then questioning Davis’ self-promotion. The conversation falls apart after Davis calls the younger activists “ignorant” because of their lack of awareness of the groups they are working against and the older BLM activist JC Faulk steps in to take Davis to task for being disrespectful of the BLM leaders. Ornstein boldly edits this sequence to include a scene of Faulk speaking at a protest, describing how he felt when he was six and learned Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed, which contrasts with Davis’ own story of the same moment, when he was ten and had no idea who Martin Luther King Jr. was or why his death mattered so much.
There is some self-awareness on Davis’ part, and after the BLM exchange he concedes that he didn’t grow up surrounded by hate the way other members of his community did. Likewise, he acknowledges that people often hate perceived “sell outs” more than the people the hate groups they are trying to dismantle. Activism is always extremely complicated but Accidental Courtesy’s greatest achievement is the way it presents the optimistic aspect of Davis’ work while also keeping the larger conversation about the impossible standards we hold black activists to in mind. It was especially interesting to see this at SXSW in a theatre mostly full of white viewers, many of whom laughed at awkward times, like when the film cut to an interview with a woman who was formerly deeply involved in the KKK but was now married to a black man. It wasn’t hard to understand why the crowd laughed at this moment, they perceived it as a scene included for irony, but their laughter showed how far removed they were from the subject and how poorly they understood Davis’ actual goal– to make people who were immersed in hate turn towards love instead. Which kind of proves the point BLM was making, that Davis’ work is possibly more useful to white people who want to feel better about their racism than to the young black people dying in the streets right now. Or to use Davis’ own words, what’s the use of preaching to the choir when they’re already converted? Even with that intellectual dilemma in mind, Accidental Courtesy is a phenomenal work that doesn’t just deserve a larger audience but also a more public conversation.
Afterwards, we went to a less topical but still powerful work, Mike Birbiglia’s new feature Don’t Think Twice. A well-written and performed ensemble film about the struggles of an improv troupe called The Commune, Don’t Think Twice is a brilliant examination of creative growth, disappointment and envy. Though Birbiglia also stars in it as Miles, the founder of the troupe and a teacher at the troupe’s homebase Improv America, there is no real main character in the film, other than perhaps the craft itself. Equally important to the film are Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher, who perform in the troupe with Miles and are all questioning where to go now that the theatre they call home is about to be torn down to make room for another Trump building.
Complicating matters is the news that SNL stand-in Weekend Live is coming to a show to scout for talent, prompting the troupe members to become more competitive and hostile towards each other. When one of the members not only lands an audition but gets cast on the show, The Commune starts to really disintegrate and the bulk of the film details the various ways they deal with this. Don’t Think Twice is a true ensemble work and so each troupe member’s desires and struggles are given equal screen time, making for an impressively intimate look inside the closed off world of comedy. Birbiglia’s script has funny moments, but Don’t Think Twice is more accurately described as a drama about the creative life and quite possibly the most accurate and honest peek behind the comedy curtain that I’ve ever seen. Birbiglia is expertly aided in this by cinematographer Joe Anderson, who does wonderful work framing the intensity and energy of improv but also boldly keeps the camera in extreme close-up throughout the film in order to showcase the emotions and passions of each actor.
Some viewers might be disappointed by the ratio of drama to comedy in Don’t Think Twice but viewers who give the film a chance will be rewarded by its raw power and exceptional humanity. It was clear at the Q&A after the film that every member of the cast and crew deeply loved making this movie and were inspired by the chemistry they had with each other, and the end result is a great film that also makes the case for Birbiglia as a spiritual successor to Albert Brooks and perhaps even a less problematic heir to classic era Woody Allen.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.