Paul Saltzman’s second meeting with "Delay" De La Beckwith went much better than the first.
More than 40 years had passed since Saltzman — now a documentary filmmaker, then a young man passionate about the civil rights movement in the U.S. — went to Greenwood, Mississippi to help with the dangerous work of registering black voters.
'I was trying to know who this human being was for the purpose of deeper understanding' —filmmaker Paul Saltzman
It was 1964, not long after the murders of civil rights activists including Medgar Evers. Saltzman was attacked while trying to sit in on a meeting of the local "white citizens’ council."
He was stopped at the door and beaten by De La Beckwith — then 19 years old — a Ku Klux Klan member and the son of Byron De La Beckwith, the high-ranking Klansman who was eventually convicted of killing Evers.
"I just saw a blur coming toward side of my head," Saltzman recalled. "He hit me pretty hard in the temple. I went down on one knee but I was already running." He was shaken but not seriously hurt.
Saltzman has put racial tensions on film before, notably in his well-regarded 2009 documentary Prom Night in Mississippi, which recounts the attempt by actor Morgan Freeman to de-segregate the prom at his old high school.
In his new documentary, The Last White Knight, the Toronto-based filmmaker went back to Mississippi for a face-to-face reunion with De La Beckwith, hoping to gain new insight on the man who attacked him then, and the man he is today. The movie screened during last year's Toronto International Film Festival and recently opened in theatres.
Their reunion took place on camera, on the steps of the very same town hall where they had clashed more than four decades ago. Five meetings in total between 2007 and 2012 form the bulk of the movie.
"I wanted to understand him," said Saltzman on CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. "I was trying to know who this human being was for the purpose of deeper understanding. I was trying to do it also so the audience would see."
"If the other [person] is the enemy, how do we ever make peace?" he added. "It starts with, hopefully, recognition that the other person is afraid and by trying to bridge a communication gap so that at least you’re talking about making peace."
Despite their differences, Saltzman, who is Jewish, was surprised by De La Beckwith’s charm and openness, even as he unapologetically recalled his participation in church-burnings and other violence while pinning the blame for racial strife on the Jews.
Saltzman recalls the moment when he corrected the other man about the Jewish people and their purported control of the media and banks.
"It’s one of the most beautiful moments in the whole film — and I credit Delay with this. I admire his courage to be real on camera," says Saltzman. "His face falls, you see the look on his face when I give him some facts, and he says ‘Maybe I wasn’t taught right.’"
"Holy mackerel. What a breakthrough for him in that moment."