The smile on Byron (Delay) De La Beckwith’s face never falters, even when he’s admitting to his ongoing loyalty to the Ku Klux Klan, brandishing his handgun, discussing his father’s imprisonment for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, insisting that white people are God’s own superior race, or even remembering how he once punched filmmaker (and Toronto-born former civil-rights volunteer) Paul Saltzman in front of a Greenwood, Miss., courthouse in 1965.
Even Saltzman, who sits across from Beckwith for most of the duration of The Last White Knight, eventually feels compelled to admit he likes the man (whom he hadn’t seen since the courthouse incident), and therein lies the powerfully beating heart of Saltzman’s movie about the encounter.
Arriving to mark Black History Month, mere weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration, and when the number of hate groups in America is growing, and when movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained have tested the lividity of the country’s unhealed wounds over slavery, The Last White Knight is both timely and daring, insisting that racism is not only alive and well in the United States, but a matter that can be as firmly gripped as a handshake.
Without ever shying from the brutality of racial hatred, Saltzman’s first-person inquiry into the human face of intolerance – an inquiry that also includes the voices of lifelong activist Harry Belafonte, members of Evers’s surviving family, Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman and three hooded representatives of the state’s KKK – is bracing for its conviction in the power of simple human contact. In reaching across the decades, even a fist like Beckwith’s opens to clasp another’s hand.
At the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, starting Feb. 1.