In 1965, while he was working for the civil rights movement in Greenwood, Mississippi, Canadian student Paul Saltzman was punched in the head by a teenage Klansman by the name of Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith.
Saltzman’s assailant was brought before the court (after some persuasion), but De La Beckwith was acquitted by a racist judge. De La Beckwith’s father—who had shot and killed civil-rights activist Medgar Evers two years earlier (he was finally convicted in 1994)—made a point of bumping Saltzman on the way out of the courtroom, growling, “Out of my way,” as he did it. Saltzman replied, “Yes sir.”
In his film The Last White Knight, Saltzman goes back to Mississippi and interviews the man who assaulted him. “By the film’s end,” writes the Globe and Mail’s Johanna Schneller, “a relationship that began in violence leads to the most subtle but powerful moment of all: We watch a mind changing.”
Actually, we watch two minds changing—his return to the Deep South was, naturally, a profound experience for Saltzman, too. We had a brief chat with the filmmaker, who’s here to present The Last White Knight at VIFF.
Georgia Straight: There’s a line in the synopsis, “The old Klansman is not forgiven, but he is humanized—a crucial distinction.” Do you want to elaborate on that a little?
Paul Saltzman: You know, people are people. We say that but we don’t necessarily apply it. In the filming, for example, when I meet someone who happens to be extreme, like the ex-Klansmen, or the White Supremacist lawyer who’s in the film, who is chilling—he’s even more chilling than the Klansmen—when I sit with them, I’m sitting in front of a human being, and I truly am curious. What do they think, and why? And by being curious it opens a door for the audience to be curious, too. And the thing about this is that judgment truly freezes reality. The minute I judge you, nothing more is gonna happen. I’ve put you in a box, and nothing is going to change… I had five conversations with Delay over five years, on film, about two hours each time, and by going deeper and deeper over time, you see him as a human being, as I hope people see me as a human being, and I see them as human beings, as opposed to, you know, the crazy categories we put people in.
GS: What’s motivating him to speak honestly with you?
PS: It took me a long time to learn this, [but] there’s something I’ve come to discover that we need more than to be loved, and that’s to be heard by the other. I think what motivated Delay is that he understood from the first time I phoned him that I was willing to listen, that I wasn’t phoning him to make a point; that I wasn’t talking to him ever to be right. It’s easy to be right. It’s the easiest thing in the world.
GS: Especially in this case!
PS: Well, yeah. And really in every case… He felt, I would say, truly received, because I was truly receiving him. We say at the end—it’s really a wonderful ending—we say we disagree with each other entirely, but we’ve come to a place of respect, and I’m very careful to say, ‘What I like about you is you had the courage to meet me, you had the courage to speak your heart and mind so I know who you are.’ And he agrees with me. ‘Two hundred and ten percent,’ is his sentence. I truly like and respect his willingness to be open and real, even when it doesn’t make him look good. And some people in his world will think I’m not the guy who looks good. They’ll think I’m just some radical betrayer of the white race.
GS: Speaking of his world, and given his family background, do you see De La Beckwith as a victim in some ways?
PS: When I sat down to film him for the first time, no, I didn’t think of him as the victim, but I asked questions, like, ‘What was your mom like?’ And he tells us on camera that his mom was an alcoholic, and that she would, when intoxicated and angry, shoot her gun at him. Literally take her .22 pistol and shoot through the screen door as he dove out, or shoot between his feet. So I say, ‘Did your father ever hit you?’ And he says that his father beat him, but then he says, ‘You have to remember, I was a very mischievous young man.’ So sure, I have compassion for the childhood that made him so angry. And where did he put that anger? It was channelled, because of the family, into racism.
GS: He was around 16 or 17 when he hit you. Would he have known that his father shot Evers?
PS: Sure, not only would he have known, but the gun that was used and left at the scene was his rifle. The fact is: his father was convicted, and until further notice I’ll believe it was his father. [But] it could have been Delay. I say, ‘Was it you?’ And there is a split second where I don’t know if he’s telling the truth, because of the way that pause happened, and the ripple across his face, and he says, ‘No.’ And I say, ‘But whose gun was it?’ And he says, ‘Delay de la Beckwith family gun.’ And I say, ‘But I thought the gun was yours?’ ‘He says, 'Yes, it was mine. Delay family gun.’ So—who knows?
The Last White Knight screens at the Granville 4, on Saturday (September 29) and Monday (October 1)
You can follow Adrian Mack's contribution to the lobotomizing techno-nightmare known as Twitter at @AdrianMacked.