Interview: Paul Saltzman

If one were to poll most people who were victims of a physical assault if they would want to see their assailant again, the response would almost overwhelmingly be in the negative category. For filmmaker and activist Paul Saltzman, however, the idea became an intriguing opportunity not only for a new film, but also for some much needed closure.

In The Last White Knight, the Prom Night in Mississippi and Canadian film and television veteran revisits his younger days as a protestor and a civil rights worker in the summer of 1965, where he was imprisoned for his views, and at one point brutally assaulted by Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith, a prominent member of the KKK and the son of the man who would later be convicted for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Starting in 2006, searching for reasoning and an understanding of the situation far removed from the youthful bluster both men once had, Saltzman interviewed Beckwith five times in five years with both men learning things about each other neither would have ever considered years prior. Neither man necessarily backs down from their former points of view, but the conversation and dialogue becomes way more diplomatic and calmer than it once would have been, creating not necessarily a friendship or an understanding, but a dialogue with pain on both sides.

Saltzman talked to Dork Shelf about his film (which plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this weekend to kick off Black History Month with Saltzman conducting Q&As following the Friday and Saturday evening screenings) during the Toronto International Film Festival and about the long process that seemingly conditional forgiveness takes on both sides of such an issue.

Dork Shelf: Even though you’re going back to Mississippi and exploring themes of race relations once again, this couldn’t have been an easier film to make because you are tackling something a lot more personal here. Was there any trepidation before going into this? Was this something you have always had on the back burner for a long time?

Paul Saltzman: It wasn’t in a sense on the back burner. I went down to Mississippi in 2006 really just to see how things had changed and not changed since I was there, and I wasn’t even really planning on making a film. I actually hadn’t made a film in 15 years at that point. I had done a lot of filmmaking. I counted once something more than 300 projects I had worked on if you included all the episodic television series I had worked on and all my really early films that were between 3 and 5 minutes long like most filmmakers, and I just wanted to do other things. So when I went down, it wasn’t to do a film.

So I went down and I met Morgan (Freeman), who was a friend in rural Mississippi where he lives and I thought that it was really beautiful what he was saying about life and race and what it is to be a human being. I think he was interviewed on 60 Minutes, probably by Morely Safer, but I can’t really remember, and I remember he was asked about his business partner and friend, who’s a white lawyer in Mississippi from the Delta just like Morgan. And he was asked a question along the lines of what it was like to live in Mississippi with a white business partner, and Morgan – without a beat – says “Is Bill white?” (laughs) And his point is that if we just forget about colour that it would disappear. I remember listening to that and thinking that it was so wonderful that someone should be filming it, and at some point I said “I guess that’s me.”

So I made my first film in 15 years, which actually started out to be this film here, but it’s a different concept. I finished shooting this film, and the day I finished shooting it was the day I found out about this high school that was having these separate proms that were organized by the parents as seen in Prom Night in Mississippi. And that took three years because I would have missed that entire story if I didn’t jump on it right away.

So three years later I went back to the footage of The Last White Knight, the original title of which was Return to Mississippi because I was returning, Morgan Freeman had returned to live there, more blacks were moving South than North for the first time in American history, and I was curious what all that meant. So when I started out, it was really a much more general film.

But I read once some famous sculptor who said something about how no matter what he carves, it all emerges out of a rock, and I think that’s very true about film, and not just film in general, but more specifically documentaries. If you think you know what the film is and you want to control that, you miss a lot of what emerges out of that footage, or out of the rock.

So Delay, who I was originally only going to film with once, and after Prom Night had finished after four months of shooting with no days off, the day before flew home I thought that almost two years had passed since I had filmed him, so I called him and asked if there was any chance that I could come over to his house and film. He’s four hours away from where I was in Eastern Mississippi, and I jumped in my car and I raced over and I filmed that great scene in his garden where he was talking about his “nigger mammy” and how he could never hate her, and it was all too obvious that she was sort of like his own surrogate mother because his own mother was an alcoholic, and when she was mad at him – and he says this in the film – that she would fire her gun at him. He would dive out the screen door with his mother firing 22 bullets through the screen door at him. So you could see his own childhood. His father beat him and his father brought him up to be a staunch segregationist and was a heavyweight in the Klan, so he was involved with them from 14 years old, started carrying a concealed weapon on him as soon as he got his driver’s license at 15.

What emerged out of all of that was five separate occasions filming with Delay, just things moving along as I was filming. And then in the middle of all that Obama was elected, and how could I not talk to and ask Delay about that. So what emerged from it all was a more personal story for the both of us, and one that was a lot more personal than I originally intended to tell.

DS: Do you think taking that time between the beginning of this and doing another film in the middle of its production informed what you did here in any way?

PS: Great question. It couldn’t NOT do that in the sense that if we want to change we go through changes, and if we want to stay the same we stay the same. But I’m somebody who believes that life is about positive change. So, yes, it informed it because with the last interview I did with Delay was in February of 2012 at the end of a five year period that I was filming. Well, Paul the Filmmaker was different five years later, and Delay the Subject was different five years later. And both of us had been impacted to some extent by our ongoing conversation.

Here’s someone who tried to hurt me and punched me in the head, and if he had caught me back then I either wouldn’t be here today – because the human body is frail, people die from one punch or get kicked in the head once and they can die sometimes – and at best I would have been seriously beat up. So as those five years unfolded he and I got to know each other through the ongoing dialogue, and that’s where you see this tremendous arc of change.

Early in the film he says to me, “Well, Paul you was just a nigger lover who came down here and stuck your nose in our business, and I didn’t think you had any business here as a white man to say anything.” Then near then end of the film and near the last filming we did where he’s come to sort of think of me as his friend. We agreed to disagree without violence, which I think is the point of the film. Is reconciliation possible?

One of my heroes is Nelson Mandela. He came out of 27 years of prison and it wasn’t about revenge, or control, or retribution. It was how do we now have a society where blacks and whites can now get along. And the brilliance of whoever came up with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was something that just blew my mind. If you testified about who you murdered, or who you raped, or who you hurt, and as long as you honestly confessed it in the committer you wouldn’t be prosecuted. And when I first heard of it I thought, “Well, that’s not right.” But then I realized that if he’s going to try and heal and the country is trying to heal you just have vendetta, right?

In a sense the five years I spent on this and Prom Night just informed the evolution of this and our interactions and ourselves.

DS: With Delay do you think the five years helped for you to get straight answers from him or was he always up front and candid with you from the start?

PS: That’s true. I think that most people, if not everybody, has a certain contraction around their heart and the things they fear. I think if I had asked him deep personal questions – and it wasn’t like I didn’t do that altogether on our first encounter – but as it unfolded it could go deeper. I specifically asked him the same question sometimes five times over five years to see if that evolution changed; not to see how it changed, but to go deeper, and yes, by him coming to trust me and realizing from the get-go that I wasn’t there to judge him and I wasn’t there for me to be right, and I wasn’t there for him to be wrong, and I wasn’t there to mock him, I wasn’t there to shame him, which are all things where bad human behaviour sort of stems from people feeling superior over another person. Eventually they feel they think you have more of a right to your life than they do to their life. I mean, just look at what’s happened in the world.

I think that by going back over and over again over five years allowed him to feel safer and safer about being more and more real, and that brought out stuff in him that I don’t think would have happened in the first interview.

DS: And that’s kind of a two way street. Did YOU feel safer in talking to him as it went on.

PS: (laughs for a moment) I actually felt pretty safe after the first time because if you look at the film, the first time I meet him in the film is the first time I meet him on camera. I didn’t want to do anything out of the ordinary because I wanted that initial reaction of what it was like for him to meet me and the other way around. If you look at the film, I have tension in my face and in my body. I’m about to meet this guy for the first time since our run in. So I felt safe from after that first interview. From the second interview onward I was quite at ease and curious to get to know him better and better on film for the purpose of exploring not only what happened between us, but also who he was and is and in the context of his father’s history. His dad was the guy who shot Medgar Evers. Shot him in the back in cold blood and got away for 31 years before he was convicted.

The only other time that I had a moment of fear was that I didn’t realize the whole time that he was always carrying a concealed weapon until he showed it to me. I was wondering definitely if I should be worried there and I was just kind of letting my inner voice kind of talk me down. He pulls out this gun, and before he pulled it out I asked if there was anything to say before getting started in a new interview, and he says two things about how he values that we had gotten in touch with each other and that we were able to talk without – I forget his exact words – hostility, and then he starts to talk about carrying a concealed weapon. Then I asked if he had one on him now, and that was a real question. He says, “Oh yes!” and I kind of laughed a little nervously and asked if I should be worried, and he said “No, I’m not trying to intimidate you.” So there was still a little ripple in the forcefield. But that only lasted a couple of seconds.

DS: Were you surprised that someone so bigoted was so open to having any sort of discourse about his views?

PS: I wasn’t really surprised. I was grateful. I was intrigued and thankful that he was willing to meet with me and talk on camera. Grateful that he was willing to be that open, and that’s why at the end of the film I thank him for being real with me. And in a certain way that was so the audience knows who he is. I had a very interesting experience where at the end of the movie where something remarkable moments happens that’s the culmination of other remarkable moments in the movie. The wife of my lawyer, who’s a broadcast lawyer, said to me after seeing the film said, “You know, I came to like him. I don’t agree with who he is, and I don’t agree with what he stands for, but I came to like him because I could see the human being inside, and I didn’t think that I COULD like him until I saw the end of the film.” So that was a very interesting twist. It doesn’t make you like him, but it makes him look human.

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