According to insiders, the network is mulling changing the show’s title, to perhaps something less flippant. “Generation KKK” might sound like a shallow reality show about a bunch of young people hanging out in the Ku Klux Klan, but it’s actually a deep, sober, documentary-style look at families being torn apart by the hate group.
The show, which premieres Jan. 10, has been in production for a year and a half – but it was officially announced just this week. A&E kept “Generation KKK” under wraps in order to produce the unscripted series without incident, but the timing of the announcement – with many uneasy about the country’s current transition of power – may be backfiring.
The shocking return of white supremacists to the American center stage, fueled by the political climate, caught many off guard, including the producers and executives behind “Generation KKK” and other TV programs about the Klan scheduled to premiere this winter.
All of these KKK programs were produced when Donald Trump was barely a gleam in the GOP’s eye. Now, whatever their intentions may have been, they’re programming hours and hours of political footballs — and they have very little control of where those footballs will go.
It’s apparent that filmmakers and executives are now uncertain as how to adjust to this sudden societal shift. That’s because this is Hollywood, and there’s always the danger that even well-meaning projects might be seen more as titillation than education.
There’s a fine line between working to expose the Klan and inadvertently normalizing hate groups. “That is certainly something I have been thinking about a lot lately about, especially in regards to the ‘alt-right,'” said director Matt Ornstein, whose film “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America” premieres February 13 on PBS’ “Independent Lens.” It’s the story of an African-American musician who has spent 30 years meeting and befriending KKK members, hoping to change their views.
“Are we giving these groups the attention that they want?” Ornstein asks. “My theory has always been with them, if I let them talk and if I gave them enough rope they would hang themselves.”
A&E executive vice president/GM Rob Sharenow told IndieWire that A&E brass is concerned about “Generation KKK” getting caught up in politics. And indeed, there is already backlash about the show from outsiders, including “Grey’s Anatomy” star Ellen Pompeo and “The Wire” actor Wendell Pierce, both of whom wrote on Twitter that A&E should be boycotted over it. (Pierce was unavailable for comment, but A&E has been attempting to send him a screener of the show. Pompeo was also unavailable, but backtracked on social media after A&E responded to her Tweets.)
The cable network has experienced political backlash before; in 2013, right-wing critics attacked when A&E decided to suspend production on “Duck Dynasty” following offensive statements made by series patriarch Phil Robertson. In 2016, wading into politics and this country’s divisive blue vs. red culture is unavoidable — even if, ideally, the topic of racism shouldn’t be a political one.
“I don’t want politics to be a barrier to people coming to this show,” Sharenow said. But in this era of social media and “fake news,” it will be, and the network probably should have prepared for the inevitable “KKK” controversy. Just as politics now dominates the conversation surrounding climate change (which ideally would be a scientific debate rather than a political one), race is now highly politicized – witness the voter suppression laws across the country that attempt to keep people of color from the ballot box. The rise of Trump coincides with the rise in fear among lower-class whites that they’ve been left behind as the nation’s demographics shift.
“A lot of this country didn’t vote based on white supremacy… but they did say someone espousing white supremacist views was not a deal breaker by any means,” Ornstein said. “And that is something that is better for us to know and address than not. Mathematically, it is true the reign of the white man is coming to a close. I didn’t think I knew that there was one last gasp in there, but I guess there was.”
That’s why Sharenow is probably right to be “worried about it, because I don’t want people to think that this is some sort of political statement that is somehow timed to affect people’s perception of the administration, outgoing or incoming,” he said. “I want everyone to access it and to understand it for what it is. There is a clear moral right and wrong here that defies politics. I think the politics muddy everything. Then morality gets blurred.”
Further muddying that message: The Trump campaign is mentioned (albeit briefly) in the series by Klan members. Sharenow said that was unavoidable, giving the timing of the series’ filming.
“Accidental Courtesy,” meanwhile, may already feel outdated because it was filmed mostly before Trump became the Republican nominee for president. “It seemed like he would be a footnote, and to waste time on him was unfortunate,” Ornstein said. “That should give you a glimpse into how much the scene has changed in such short period of time … If you would have told me two years ago that the KKK was live broadcasting from a presidential rally, and he wouldn’t disavow them immediately, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Ornstein said “Accidental Courtesy” includes an explainer on the Klan, something that now feels unnecessary. (The film wrapped production in early 2016.) “If I were making the film now, I don’t know if I would need to prime people on what the Klan is all about and its existence and relevance,” he said.
Another element that’s changed: Ornstein said he now feels conflicted that the nation’s ugly, extremely visible racial discord could be an asset to his film. “As someone who lives in this country and is politically aware, it’s difficult to not feel like we’re benefiting from such unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “But on the other hand, if this is a conversation people want to have even more now and we’re a vehicle for that, then I’m glad we exist.”
Comedian W. Kamau Bell, who met with members of the KKK on an episode of his CNN series, “United Shades of America,” earlier this year, worries that the Klan has now become “clickbait” for unscripted television, in the vein of other reality subcultures like little people, the Amish, and families with way too many babies.
“Even for our show, it was a clickbait episode,” Bell said. “I stand behind the work we did. [But] now with the election and with the ‘alt-right,’ you’re hearing the words ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ on the news in ways you didn’t hear before. My fear is that this is just going to gin up more clicks, but not actually talk about what is wrong in America.”
That brings us back to the click-baity title “Generation KKK,” which might sound akin to “Keeping Up with the KKK” or “The Real World: KKK.” That kind of marketing has so far been a disservice to the docuseries, which is a well-done, serious expose of white supremacists, and aims to remind viewers that hate groups are still active — and growing — in America.
Even Sharenow admitted there has already been a lot of confusion about the show. “This is not a reality show starring the Ku Klux Klan,” he stressed. The series harbors loftier goals as a documentary about activists who help people (particularly children) escape the influence of family members in the Klan.
In the premiere episode of “Generation KKK,” an Iraq war veteran is seen grooming his 4-year-old son to spout racist views, and an Imperial Wizard attempts to get his teenage daughter to join the group. In both cases, the kids’ mothers raise objections.
Sharenow compared “Generation KKK” to the network’s long-running franchise “Intervention.”
“I think ‘Intervention’ really showed drug addiction in a way that had not really been explored before, where I think viewers really got a glimpse at what it really is to be an addict and how much destruction it brings to the people’s lives,” he said. “I think this does the same thing for race hate and hatred. I don’t think that the right thing to do would be to just pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s also part of the message is to acknowledge that there is this reality out there, and that it needs to be dealt with.”
“Generation KKK” was produced with the support of anti-hate groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, which is producing a public service campaign centered around the show with A&E.
A&E also recently has received acclaim for more documentary-focused series like “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” which took on that organization, and “Born This Way,” which chronicled the lives of seven adults with Down’s Syndrome.
“Accidental Courtesy” star Davis said he was, coincidentally, also approached to appear on “Generation KKK,” which features a number of his friends, including fellow activists Daryle Lamont Jenkins (founder of One People’s Project, which monitors hate groups) and Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist.
Davis said he had some initial worries about joining “Generation KKK,” but hasn’t ruled it out should the series continue. “What I know about reality shows is that a lot of things are scripted,” he said, explaining his reservations. “I think the good part of it is, it brings to attention the problem that still exists in our country that so many people either deny or turn a blind eye to and ignore. This show will bring it out.”
But Davis, who has participated in other TV programs about the Klan, said he’s also worried that series won’t have a lasting impact on keeping people out of the KKK once the cameras stop rolling.
“I know they will address a certain issue for a short period of time until they get their story,” he said. “Once that’s resolved and they’ve gotten the story they want, they move on to the next one, the next Klansperson. The one that they have initially is in the spotlight for an hour on TV. But then what happens when the lights go out? If there’s no reinforcement, and no support, then there is that recidivism.
“Getting these people out of the Klan is one thing, but providing them support and newfound friendships and a new lease on life needs to be in place,” he said. “Just filming them and getting them out of the Klan and then leaving them … don’t be surprised if six months to a year they’re back.”
“Generation KKK” producers offered counseling and support for people who made the decision to leave the Klan, Sharenow said. (It’s unclear if anyone took them up on the offer.)
On the question of whether an influx of KKK-related programming “normalizes” such groups, Bell is cautious. “It all depends on the type of attention and what the perspective on the attention is,” he said. “I think some people do hide behind the word ‘normalizing’ as ways of saying, ‘I don’t want to confront uncomfortable things.'”
Sharenow believes shining a spotlight on Klan members has the effect of exposing it “for its true ugliness” rather than “normalizing” white supremacy.
“It is not David Duke in a suit and tie,” he said. “It is something that’s more viscerally disturbing. The worst thing you could do is ignore it and hope it goes away and hope it’s not really as bad as it is. I think what this does is to say, ‘Look at this cancer. It’s horrible, and it’s going to kill us.’ It’s not polite. It’s not neat, and it’s also very much actively about the effort to stop it.”
Bell said his Klan episode was criticized by African-American viewers, who asked why he would give the group any airtime. White viewers, on the other hand, told him they had no idea the KKK still existed. “I certainly understand the argument from black people saying we should not give any attention,” he said. “[But] it was important because a lot of people had no idea this was in America, and they needed to know.”