A Conversation with Adam Bhala Lough (ALT-RIGHT: AGE OF RAGE)
Call it luck, or call it the finely honed instincts of an artist in tune with his times: Adam Bhala Lough might be the most prescient documentary filmmaker at work in the U.S. right now. After launching his career with two formidable hip-hop-flavored narrative features (Bomb the System and Weapons), Lough moved into the world of nonfiction with The Carter (2009). This remarkably candid but unsensationalized backstage portrait of Lil Wayne was filmed just as the New Orleans rapper was on the verge of transitioning from cult hero to pop megastar — Lough is there with his camera as Wayne finds out his new album sold a million copies during its first week in release.
In The New Radical (2017), Lough introduced us to Cody Wilson, a self-described “crypto-anarchist” who attempted to publish online blueprints for a plastic gun that could be built with a 3-D printer. Reactions to The New Radical were mixed; probably the months after Trump’s ascension to the Presidency wasn’t the ideal time to release a movie about a Second Amendment absolutist who insists there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans. I thought the film was an alarming and important one, calling attention to a rising generation of tech-savvy libertarian activists who might play a large role in shaping our collective future — a hunch that was validated this past July, when Wilson made headlines after Trump’s State Department lifted the ban on publishing plans for 3-D printable guns. (A U.S. District Court judge then granted a temporary injunction preventing Wilson from doing so, but the legal battle continues.)
For his latest documentary, Lough followed two subjects at opposing ends of our current political divide: white supremacist Richard Spencer, and Antifa activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins. Alt-Right: Age of Rage tracks Spencer and Jenkins as they elucidate their viewpoints, strategize, and organize in the months leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. The viewer knows what’s coming — Lough places brief fragments of footage from the bloody clash at the start of the film, then lets the dreadful anticipation build before returning to Charlottesville at the climax, plunging us deep into the chaos that resulted in the murder of protestor Heather Heyer. Lough also includes interviews with leaders and activists from both sides that place Charlottesville in historical context, and the result is a wide-ranging film that’s as thoughtful as it is visceral.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage is being released today on VOD by Gravitas Ventures (go here for details). Lough agreed to answer some questions on the movie and related topics via email.
Hammer to Nail: Errol Morris recently complained about the backlash he’s getting for his documentary portrait of Steve Bannon, American Dharma, which some viewers think doesn’t take a strong enough stance against Bannon. This is something you’ve been dealing with in the responses to your own work. Your piece in The Talkhouse takes on critics who thought you were too easy on the subjects of The New Radical. And one review I read of Alt-Right: Age of Rage seemed to dance around the idea that maybe movies shouldn’t give people like Spencer and Jared Taylor and Gavin McInnes any platform to air their beliefs (even though you give equal time to people rebutting their beliefs).
Adam Bhala Lough: We are losing the willingness to hear opposing viewpoints. This is sad and it has negatively affected the reception of my last two films and of me as a filmmaker. I’m a curious person, this is why I got into documentary filmmaking. I want to know about things I am not supposed to. I want to investigate dark corners of the world. In terms of the alt-right, I want to be clear I don’t agree with anything they are saying, honestly not one single thing. But at the same time I firmly believe in listening to people you disagree with, hearing them out. Not only is it dangerous to shut down speech from viewpoints you oppose but frankly it makes for a boring world if everyone thinks the same way.
I’ll add to that, when you mention the negative Alt-Right review, let me point out that all the reviewers and people during Q&A’s who have chastised me for interviewing the alt-right and “giving them screen-time to air their hatred” have been white. There’s something problematic about a white person telling me, a person of color whose mom is from a “shit-hole country,” that I have no right to interview alt-right members. My family is in the direct firing line of a lot of these people’s hatred. I need to know and I want to know what they’re thinking. It’s only been white people who have attacked me for making this film. Overwhelmingly, black viewers at the screenings came up to me afterward and thanked me for making the film. Chew on that for a moment.
We are absolutely in a polarized moment where we — filmmakers and artists — have been forced to “pick a side.” You aren’t allowed to be objective, or curious about the other side because “too much is at stake.” That’s what they keep telling me. When Errol Morris started speaking out about how upset he was that no one wanted to distribute his Steve Bannon film, I felt a tinge of familiarity. A bit of déjà vu. I wanted to tell him, I’ve been there, brother. And it doesn’t get any better.
HtN: There’s that moment near the end, as Spencer is hemming and hawing about Heather Heyer’s death, when you break in from off-camera and say, “Can’t you just condemn her killing?” That, plus the dedication to your mother at the end, should make it clear to any attentive viewer where you stand.
ABL: Yep. I think it’s clear and I think I did ask Richard Spencer some tough questions throughout the film but that was resoundingly ignored by the critics who did not want me to give him airtime at all. To be clear though, we did get a lot of great reviews too. At the time of this writing we have an 86% RT score, which is very high.
HtN: The right to free speech has traditionally been held sacred by the left. The ACLU famously defended neo-Nazis’ right to march through Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s. But there seems to be a paradigm shift taking place, with conservatives claiming the mantle of First Amendment defenders, and liberals saying some speech is too dangerous to be allowed. You capture this shift in the film — you have Gavin McInnes saying there are no limits to free speech, while Simran Jeet Singh warns about how hateful ideas can become ingrained in people’s heads and lead to physical violence. I feel pretty conflicted about this change, and I’m wondering what your take on it is.
ABL: I stand where I always stood — I am for free speech. It’s a fundamental right that comes along with being an American. Hate speech should not be illegal, you should not go to jail for something you say or something you write. I don’t want to see this country turn into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where people are being locked up for words. But we also have an obligation to teach young people that words have consequences. Hate has consequences. You will be judged by your words and you might not like what happens to you next. It drives me crazy, these guys who engage in rampant hate speech and then cry (sometimes literally, on camera) when they get their comeuppance. I want to say to them, you knew what you were doing, you made your own bed, now lie in it. I was developing a project many years ago with Marilyn Manson and I remember he used to always say, “Free speech doesn’t come with a dental plan.” Personally, I feel you should be able to say whatever you want to say but I also feel people have the right — at least ethically — to punch you in the mouth if you’re spouting hate in their direction. And there are a lot of people in this country right now who need a hard punch in the mouth.
Let’s talk about Big Tech. If a Silicon Valley tech company wants to fire someone for their words, they have the right to do that. And the government has no right to intervene. If Twitter wants to boot Alex Jones off their platform, they have every right to do that. They’re a privately owned company. The response by the alt-right is a call to have tech companies like Facebook deemed “public utilities” so that they can be policed by the government. That way they can’t shut down conservative free speech. It’s an ironic move because it’s a move straight out of the socialist playbook. And these guys condemn Antifa for being “commies.” But I understand why they’re doing it — Jared Taylor for example is unable to hold his American Renaissance conference in private hotels. These corporations — Marriott, Hilton, etc. — won’t let him. So he has to go to a state-controlled property to host him and his alt-right followers. The venues always fight back and try to kick him out and he goes to the local courthouse and gets a judge to permit it. Always. Because the government can’t control speech nor can they control the right to assemble. That’s in our Constitution. If you don’t like it, you have to change the Constitution.
That said, every time I see one of these guys get booted off a platform, part of me goes, “Good, that guy was a piece of shit anyways,” but the other part of me feels a bit queasy. Like, are we really sure we should be doing this? What kind of precedent is this setting in the future? I’m worried too. Let’s not forget historically in this country it’s been disenfranchised minorities whose speech has been shut down. Blacks, gays, women. What’s going to happen when the shoe is on the other foot again?
I’d be remiss not to mention that on the topic of free speech, it’s been a banner year for conservative free speech in the Supreme Court. You’ve got Becerra, you’ve got Masterpiece Cakeshop, conservative free speech is winning. Sixty-five percent of free-speech cases in the Roberts court are about conservative speech. This is contrasted by 8 percent in the Warren court (1953-1969). And with Kavanaugh now wearing the robe, we’re sure to see this trend continue on for a decade or more.
HtN: It’s hard to be optimistic about the current cultural divide in the U.S., but Daryle Jenkins somehow manages it — at the end of the film, he says despite the current frustrations and tensions, we are not a divided country. Meanwhile, Richard Spencer ends by saying he doesn’t think the country will ever come together and he doesn’t want it to. Which way are you leaning? After spending all this time with both factions, do you see reasons for hope?
ABL: Absolutely. I see hope in my daughter, who is 11, and her friends. I see hope in the youth. They are so much more tolerant and sensitive than we were at that age. My daughter learns things like “emotional intelligence,” she takes “mindfulness classes” in school and they teach her about Black Lives Matter. I’m just barely understanding what “emotional intelligence” is and realizing I was taught none of it in school both by my school and by my parents. I was actually taught to hide my emotions, bottle them up because as a male in the South you’re not supposed to show emotions. I’m just starting to understand the damage that did to me and many of my male friends. We’re just now beginning to talk about it together. So I see hope in the future generations. In addition to being taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, kids today are being taught how to live in this world and be a decent human being. That’s awesome. If you grew up in the ’80s and went to public school like me you were basically taught to get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job and make lots of money, buy lots of things. Some of that is useful but a lot of it is toxic and I think a direct link to the problems of today.
I think we gotta get these damn Baby Boomers out of office. They’ve really fucked up so much for our country. Their ideals are so toxic, and I’m talking about both liberal and conservative Boomers. We’re just now getting a full understanding of the damage they’ve done and beginning to undo it. So yeah, that makes me optimistic for the future.
— Nelson Kim