Alt-Right: Age of Rage
(USA, 104 minutes)
Dir: Adam Bhala Lough
Programme: Special Presentations. (Canadian Premiere)
“The best lack all conviction,” wrote WB Yeats, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” A barrage of passionate intensity from the worst threatens to numb viewers of Alt-Right: Age of Rage. A project that launched before Donald Trump got elected, the movie aims at offering a comprehensive, at times visceral depiction of the Alt-Right, a term coined by Richard Spencer, one of director Adam Lough’s main characters.
The educated, articulate Spencer, a fixture on cable news, toys with Nazi images and language like infamously shouting “Hail Trump!” and greeting followers with a hearty “Hail Victory.” But his pitch is all about lending an air of preppie respectability and intellectual due diligence to his White Supremacist vision. Race is everything, for Spencer and his followers. The white race is under siege; it must protect itself and separate itself from black and brown people.
In one scene, Spencer casually tosses out the idea that American blacks are better off than Africans, implying that slavery was a social benefit for people who were kidnapped and tormented for hundreds of years, and that the entire population of a huge continent lives in utter squalor
“What do you do about these dangerous people?,” the film asks. Dylann Roof, the 24-year-old who slaughtered nine black churchgoers at prayer in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t need face-to-face contact with White Supremacists. He recruited himself to the movement by sucking up its ideology online. “Why should it be illegal to hate?,” someone in the film asks. However, infectious beliefs cannot be quarantined. For one thing, the USA’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.
Roof’s murders and the killing of anti-fascist Heather Heyer at last year’s Unite the Right nightmare in Charlottesville were regrettable and sad, says Spencer, but no reason to condemn anyone. In a film that badly needs catharsis, one of the most satisfying moments comes when Lough replays the viral moment when Spencer got punched out of sight. Members of the Hot Docs audience applauded.
Scenes like the punch and coverage of Charlottesville are familiar from cable TV and YouTube, but the doc cranks up the visuals and the sound, making them more ominous.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage opens on a flashback in America’s history with the extreme right: the notorious 1930s Nazi rally in Madison Square Gardens which came complete with onstage beatings of protestors. Later on, we learn that the pseudo science of phrenology, used to justify the murder of the handicapped in Nazi Germany, started in America. From the old Nazi rally, Lough cuts to the modern one in Charlottesville, with its torch carrying marchers and chants of “The Jews will not replace us.” The rest of the film builds its way back to the trauma.
From the Alt-Right corner of this doc, which is built around the battle between the passionately intense worst and their opposition, Lough highlights the less familiar than Spencer Jared Taylor. Educated, well travelled, fluent in Japanese, Taylor recalls the late arch conservative William Buckley. He’s a wealthy, impeccably groomed patrician, a published author, who to his chagrin has now been rejected by legitimate publishers.
Bemused by opposition to what he considers his airtight reasoning, the inexplicable Taylor argues that human inequalities are simple obvious facts. Men are taller than women, Asians have higher IQs than everybody, white people are threatened by demographics, and hence the USA should be split between the White Race and everybody else.
Taylor does not want to be identified with violence. In a tense moment, he displays tightly controlled rage when one of his followers at one of his American Renaissance conferences, gets into a fight. Taylor publishes the magazine American Renaissance, a fancier way of saying Make America Great Again. He’s a throwback to a 19th century landowner, or a British Lord, natural rulers complaining about the presumption of the lower classes.
Jared Taylor’s father was what he calls a Country Club Republican who didn’t belong to a club. In the opposite corner of a bout that will probably go on until the final judgment, we meet One People’s Project founder Daryle Lamont Jenkins. Affiliated with the anti-Fascist movement Antifa, Jenkins is an amiable 49-year-old black man who devotes himself to outing Alt-Rightists via his writing, public confrontations, and since Trump hulked into power, on TV shows like Rachel Maddow’s and my favourite newsperson, radiant Joy Reid’s.
Jenkins, whose father was a Civil Rights activist, grew up in New Jersey and spent formative years in the Air Force, followed by the punk scene. In an intimate moment, the seriously overweight crusader tells us his cause became even more urgent for him when he was diagnosed with cancer.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage alternates between Jenkins, Spencer (sometimes they’re in the same space), and Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Mark Potok, who took most of the questions at the Q&A following Hot Docs’s first screening of the film. In both the doc and the Q&A, Potok takes on a supremely informed Voice of Reason role, countering the lunatic claims of the Alt-Right.
For instance, there is no violent leftist movement out to take down white boys. Antifa isn’t the Black Panthers or the Weathermen of the 1960s. As for the confederate flags and monuments that rightists and Donald Trump are so concerned about, Potok points out that one obnoxious obelisk in the south was dedicated to three people who died in a massacre of 150 black union soldiers.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage is solid documentary filmmaking, but it’s overly symmetrical, too on-the-nose and talky. Given the content, the sparks don’t fly the way they should. I wasn’t shaken the way I expected to be.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage screens:
-Fri, May 4 at 3:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.