We tend to associate “white knights” with honour and decency: they’re chivalrous figures who protect the weak and the helpless from sinister forces. Certainly, the men marshalled together by one Samuel Bowers in the 1960s saw themselves as defenders of the realm—both their literal home turf of Mississippi and also more generally of an America divided along racial lines. Formed in 1963 in opposition to the state’s burgeoning civil rights movement, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) waged a campaign of brutal violence culminating on Memorial Day in 1964 when they burned a church to the ground and later murdered three civil rights workers in Neshoba County under the auspices of the clandestinely affiliated local sheriff and his deputy.
Those events were portrayed in Alan Parker’s Oscar-nominated drama Mississippi Burning (1988), a movie that attempted to meld Death Wish –style vigilante movie tropes with a sense of righteous social justice. Many critics complained that by focusing on two heroic white FBI agents, the film downplayed the efforts of African-Americans in their own political struggle. Pauline Kael famously wasn’t a fan, and neither is Paul Saltzman, who believes that it overstated the role that the intelligence agency played in bringing the killers to justice. “The FBI are portrayed as heroes in the film,” says the 69-year-old producer-director. “But in fact the bodies of the dead civil rights workers were found by two Jewish businessmen who paid a KKK informant for the info. One of those two men is deceased. The other is in my film.”
The film in question is The Last White Knight, a documentary that premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Documentary Conference. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another one, and while Saltzman’s film isn’t necessarily intended as a rejoinder to Parker’s, it’s at once more authentic and more audacious. Instead of pitting movie star white knights against sneering, cross-burning villains plucked right out of redneck central casting, it hinges on a civilized conversation between two people who were actually on the ground during the period: Delay de la Beckwith, the son of the man who was eventually convicted for the 1963 assassination of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader Medgar Evers and a member of the Klan, and the director himself, who found himself on the wrong side of the former’s fist when he was down South aiding in a voter registration drive.
“I got in touch with Delay,” explains Saltzman over coffee at Canteen restaurant in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. “Why? I was interested to understand him. He was 19 years old when he knocked me one, and I was 21.” Saltzman says that the desire to reconnect with a man who had beaten him up—and subsequently beaten the charges—was connected to his interest in revisiting Mississippi 40 years after his initial experiences there, which was in turn sparked by a phone call from a newspaper reporter from Jackson looking for a quote from a former civil rights worker.
Saltzman, a two-time Emmy winner who began his career at the CBC in the 1960s after returning home from his work in the South (where he’d also been jailed for his efforts) and other journeys, wasn’t necessarily waiting for a sign to return to filmmaking. By his own account, he’d been out of the game for 15 years, during which time he’d published a best-selling book of photographs taken in 1968, when he’d hung out with the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India. (Saltzman certainly got around in the 1960s.)
“For many years I was pretty central in the biz, and produced a lot and founded and ran what became the third biggest production company in Canada [Sunrise Films],” he explains. “And then I stopped making movies for years because I thought ‘been there, done that.’ I was working seven days a week and I think I lost sight of some of the more important things in life. I got a little tired of people asking ‘So what are you up to’ at industry events, and you know exactly what they’re really saying, which is ‘Tell me that you’re not doing more than I am so that I don’t have to feel bad.’”
Even when Saltzman resolved to travel back to Mississippi, he wasn’t sure exactly what movie has was going to make, or even if he was going to make one at all. He says that his eureka moment came during a conversation with Morgan Freeman, whom he’d contacted through a mutual friend, where the Oscar-winning actor held forth on the topic of race and prejudice. “We were sitting by his swimming pool in Charleston, and he’s just this well-read, erudite, heartfelt, deep, remarkable human being. I thought: someone should be filming this, and I guess that person should be me.”
As it turns out, Saltzman ended up making two movies, neither of which was the one he had in mind. His intention after chatting with Freeman was to make a documentary focusing on people who, like himself, could give first-hand accounts of the civil rights movement. On the one hand, this meant getting touch with a fellow crusader like Harry Belafonte; on the other, it meant reaching out to de la Beckwith, who was surprisingly receptive to the director’s initial request for the interview. But even though he got plenty of footage, Saltzman changed course when his researcher unexpectedly received a hot tip: she was told by a teenaged ice cream parlor server that her high school in Charleston was gearing up for their senior prom, which was still totally segregated. Upon learning that Freeman had offered to pay for the entire prom 10 years earlier if the school de-segregated the event, Saltzman called him and asked him to put the offer back on the table.
Released to admiring reviews at festivals in Canada and the United States in late 2009, Prom Night in Mississippi deals candidly with racial tensions and the attempts of many students and teachers to work through them. It’s an inspiring piece of work that doesn’t strain for easy uplift. The film also has had an amazing afterlife as a teaching tool: the director estimates that he’s personally shown the film to at least 30,000 people at screenings designed to generate discussion. “When I do work with the film, and I’ve show[n] it to grade ones and then to audiences at the White House, the conversations all follow the same healing pattern. I ask the audience ‘How many people here have had at least one prejudiced thought in your life?’ The same thing always happens: people look around because they don’t want to be the only one. And then all the hands go up, and there’s giggling and chatter and relief. As politically incorrect as it is to have prejudice, we all do.”
That observation could be a thesis statement for The Last White Knight, which came together when Saltzman’s collaborator Tom Schlesinger looked at about 10 hours of footage that had been shot before and after the production of Prom Night and suggested that a change in direction was necessary. “[Tom] said, ‘This isn’t a movie about going back to Mississippi. It’s about two guys who could have ruined each other’s lives all those years ago meeting again in a bunch of hotel rooms to talk to each other.’ I realized that he was right. So it shifted to being about the dialogue between us, and about seeing who he is really is. How do we understand the other? There’s a wonderful phrase I live by: ‘Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.’”
It’s debatable as to whether de la Beckwith entered into the project in the same spirit, but there’s no question that as The Last White Night goes on, the two men begin to drop some of their defense mechanisms and listen to each other not simply as rivals. The contrast in the worldviews couldn’t be more striking, of course, and de la Beckwith doesn’t back off his white supremacist views, nor does he make apologies for his peers, or his father, whom he strongly suggests was involved in Evers’ assassination even if he doesn’t confirm that he was the one who pulled the trigger. But because Saltzman doesn’t bait or contradict his subject, he opens up and reveals his deep-seated pathology in a way that’s unfiltered, sincere, complex and ultimately very illuminating. What emerges is not some sensationalistic “portrait of a monster” but instead a study of how certain things we often look at as virtue—like loyalty and a dedication to one’s family and principles can be warped by a combination of time, place and cultural context.
“I think [that Delay] felt that somebody cared to ask him what he thought and felt,” says Saltzman. “Most people don’t care to do that. I think from the first time I picked up the phone and called him and said I wanted to film with him that he felt that I wasn’t out to get him. He punched me in the head, I took him to court, and he got away with it by lying. But I wasn’t out to get him. I was trying to understand him.” He says that some people have suggested that the movie goes too far in this regard: the director claims that some festival programmers have rejected it on the grounds that it gives a racist a platform to spout hate speech. “That’s not what the film is about,” he says sharply. “It’s about non violent communication. [Delay] and I differ with each other entirely. I say this on camera. How do we communicate without aggression and violence? We have a troublesome world, rich and poor, privileged and not. How can we move towards a more just and equitable and non-violent world? How do we solve things without pulling out a glock on the schoolyard? I don’t know but it starts by talking to each other and disagreeing without the need to punch or shoot each other and go to war.
“One of the things I’m most delighted about is how many people have said that they were confused by the movie,” he adds. They say things like ‘I kind of hate this guy or I hate what he says. But he’s kind of likeable and I don’t know what to do with that.’ At TIFF, a friend told me that she was glad that I said at the end of the movie that I liked Delay. Until that point she didn’t think that she had the right to because she so abhorred his philosophy. She found the human being apart from his philosophy or his actions. There was that point of contact, of potential peace. How do you see your enemy and see that they are you? Healing begins within the self.”