A film documenting the meeting of a Ku Klux Klan member and a civil rights worker 43 years after their first violent meeting is bound to be explosive. Despite the soft southern drawl of staunch Klansman Delay de la Beckwith and Toronto filmmaker Paul Saltzman’s measured tones, the explosions happen in our heads, listening to them. Beckwith is third generation Ku Kux Klan and his beliefs are just that insane.
Name sounds familiar, doesn’t it? His father was Byron de la Beckwith, a Mississippi fringe dweller, acquitted twice and finally found guilty in 1994, for the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.
Back to that meeting between De La Beckwith Jr. and Saltzman. In 1965, Saltzman left his home in Toronto to aid in the civil rights movement in the deep American south. He was horrified by the racist murders of three young men, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who were in the area to facilitate black voter registration.
Saltzman helped the Committee and observed the situation in the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, the heart of racist south. He tried to enter a meeting of the racist White Citizens’ Council when a gang of locals attacked him. He was punched in the head but got away, and while the teenagers in question were caught, no action was taken.
Forty three years later, Saltzman went in search of the man who hit him and discovered De la Beckwith and his family history. What follows is a series of disturbing interviews between the two men, one a practising KKK, the other a liberal Canadian Jew. De La Beckwith shows him the gun that is with him at all times, because, he says, he grew up with guns and he likes them.
The bizarre conversations are framed by Saltzman’s interviews with other key players. Harry Belafonte risked his life to come to Greenwood after Evers’ death. He came with money for the cause. His plane was greeted by a phalanx of gun–toting hostiles in matted out black trucks. Saltzman also spoke with Evers’ family, his wife and children, men who took part in the terrorist activities of that awful time and an interesting man, the Klan’s lawyer, as committed to a whites-only America as the Klan is.
All of this is just a taste of the wave of truth that hits us, in these conversations with De la Beckwith. His feelings about events in the past, his participation in violence, the culture we was born into and his facile attempts to reconcile with Saltzman are shocking. It’s hard to tell if Saltzman is buying it. Considering the guns, it’s a good thing he’s subtle.
As enlightened citizens of 2013, it’s a strange, sickening experience watching De la Beckwith defend the violence and intimidation he and his people used to drive away “nigras and Jews”. When he speaks of things having changed in the state, it is clearly not with his consent. But he smiles and smiles and calls Saltzman friend and ingratiates himself with the audience, thrilled he’s the subject of the movie. As sickening as it is, The Last White Knight is the kind of film that gets under your skin and won’t go away. It raises many demons from the past. It’s hard to take, but it is both fascinating and a cautionary tale. After all, Belafonte still doesn’t feel safe in Mississippi.
Directed by: Paul Saltzman
Top image: A scene from The Last White Knight.