White Right: Meeting the Enemy. Directed by Deeyah Khan. New York: Women Make Movies, 2017. 55 minutes.
Exit: Leaving Extremism Behind. Directed by Karen Winther. New York: Women Make Movies, 2018. 85 minutes.
White Right and Exit are films that seek to better understand individuals who embrace radical ideologies. White Right focuses on radical white supremacists whereas Exit examines a variety of radicalized organizations.
White Right follows director Deeyah Khan as she meets, interviews, and even befriends radical, right-wing supremacists in the United States. Khan, a women of color and a Muslim, created this film after receiving a large number of threats because she advocated for multiculturalism in an interview on BBC TV. Part of her purpose is to arrange encounters between radical white supremacists in the United States and a symbol of the people they presume to hate—herself. The film begins with Khan covering the now infamous Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is pepper sprayed by people protesting against fascism. Next, the leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), Jeff Schoep, takes Khan to Detroit where economic decline has created perfect conditions for recruiting young white supremacists. There, conversations with NSM’s director of public relations Brian Culpepper, self-proclaimed anti-Semite Ken Parker, and powerful figure in the far-right Richard Spencer humanize these individuals. (Khan, though, points out how abhorrent she finds their views.) The film’s closing interviews further complicate the impact of white supremacy: former skinheads Arno Michaelis and Frank Meeink describe how they entered and eventually left radical white supremacist organizations, and Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a survivor of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, discusses his collaboration with Michaelis to challenge extremism in youth.
Exit focuses on filmmaker Karen Winther, a former member of both left- and right-wing radical organizations in Germany, as she explores experiences that lead individuals to join radical movements. Winther begins by speaking with Angela from the United States and Ingo and Manuel from Germany, all of whom once participated in right-wing, white supremacist organizations. Next, Winther goes to Denmark to interview Søren, a former violent, left-wing extremist. Winther then travels to France to meet a former jihadist. This series of intimate conversations documents how all of the characters mentioned here left their radical groups.
White Right and Exit are both created with a pedagogical purpose. Indeed, Khan and Winther state numerous times during the films that they are trying to better understand the people they are talking with. Therefore, educators have many options for using these works in classes on race, radicalization, religion, multiculturalism, etc. White Right seems especially timely as radical white supremacist ideologies are once more on the rise in the United States and in Europe. The two filmmakers do an admirable job of presenting overt white supremacists as complicated individuals. Still, the films’ final conclusions seem to suggest that racism might be disrupted if white people were to simply meet and interact with more people of color. To my view, this is an overly individualistic look at how white supremacy is created and continues to flourish as hegemonic reality. Further, the films highlight white supremacists and radicals in a way that suggests their views are extraordinarily unusual. I worry that it reaffirms the ideas that there are “good” and “bad” white people and that white supremacy is an individual choice and not a totalizing historical, social, economic, and material condition.1 While the stories of the individuals featured in the films are fascinating, the filmmakers conclude both that there is a clear separation between good and bad people and that being good is as simple as choosing to resist radicalization. To be clear, I’m not arguing that it isn’t positive to see how people extract themselves from violent, hateful organizations, but I also think that the sociocultural and economic realities that continue to produce narratives of white supremacy and hate are much bigger than individual actors. I’d suggest that, if educators show these films, they provide sociocultural context and, rather than allowing students to simply clap themselves on the back for not being radicalized, explore the nuances and investments that allow narratives of white supremacy, polarization, and violence to flourish. Timothy Lensmire’s book White Folks offers a particularly complex treatment of white identity.2 My recent book Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America also provides an example of pedagogy that attempts to handle whiteness in relation to white supremacist structural reality.3 Finally, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark from the early 1990s continues to be helpful in understanding how whiteness and white supremacy are produced.4
1 For a compelling example on the ongoing production of whiteness, see Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (New York: Continuum, 1999), 184.
2 Timothy J. Lensmire, White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America (New York: Routledge, 2017).
3 Samuel Jaye Tanner, Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America: Critical Whiteness Studies in the Classroom (New York: Routledge, 2018).
4 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993).