A&E Sparks “Normalization” Debate After it Picks Up a Docuseries About the KKK

The New York Times reports that A&E has picked up a docu-miniseries called Generation KKK which premieres Jan. 10, 2017. Due largely to genre-oriented vagueness (“docu-series” could mean what it sounds like, as in “serious documentary series,” but it also can be a euphemism for a “reality” series) coupled with the serious, not-at-all-vague hideousness of the subject, the prospect of the series sparked anger online pretty much immediately after it was announced.

As the Independent points out, actor Wendell Pierce suggested a boycott of the network on Twitter, and author Olivia A. Cole wrote:

A&E has provided fame to the likes of Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star whose flagrantly hateful comments have certainly been normalized by the reality TV format. It’s also exploited addiction for entertainment value by attempting to pass Intervention off as something along the lines of a “serious documentary.” Given how media coverage of the white supremacist “alt-right” has framed matters far too lightly and exploited these ugly subjects as though they were mere innocuous fodder for click bait — and given that the title of this thing does have a Keeping Up with the Kardashians ring to it — it makes sense there’d be concern. Hate should not be entertainment.

The question, of course, is whether this will be a reality series exploiting one of America’s most dangerous and increasingly powerful mindsets for the purposes of diversion/amusement under the defense of being nominally anti-hate, or whether it really is a documentary that happens to be on TV (à la O.J.: Made in America), one that values information and deconstruction over the deceptive dramatization that characterizes reality television and some ethically questionable TV docs. The answer to whether people should be upset about Generation KKK may be just as murky as the very qualities separating the genres, with one (“reality” television) being a capitalist ploy that imitates journalistic filmmaking, and documentary being one of the few ways we can achieve a heightened understanding of ugly realities. Judging from the early reporting, it’s hard to tell where this series falls on that genre spectrum, and some answers will likely come with the release of trailers and, of course, the series itself. Speculation and skepticism are key, but judgement should perhaps be held until we know what this thing really is, and is doing.

Generation KKK director/I Am Jazz executive producer Aengus James told the Times:

We had a stance, and we were clear with folks that we were hoping for them to see the light and to come out of this world. It’s an incredibly destructive environment for anybody to be in, let alone children.

The series apparently provides intimate views into the family lives of these people — which again, could either mean “normalization,” and further suggest that it’ll fall into reality TV territory, or it could mean just the opposite, particularly if it succeeds in detailing the destructiveness James describes. The show also enlisted anti-hate activists Daryle Lamont Jenkins, Arno Michaelis, and Bryon Widner to attempt to steer some of its subjects away from the hate movement. (And again, that could either be a good sign, or it could mean these activists are being used for a cheap Intervention-like tug-of-war format.)

An actual documentary about the nature of indoctrination, particularly that of children, could be both informative and appropriately scary — alienating, thought-provoking, non-entertainment. Hopefully the A&E series will amount to more than the type of trivializing faux-documentary programming we’ve come to know, like the aforementioned Intervention or the more recent The Killing Season. It seems like it could be, despite the red flags of the title and the tradition of “docu” shows on A&E.

The general manager of A&E told the Times:

We certainly didn’t want the show to be seen as a platform for the views of the KKK. The only political agenda is that we really do stand against hate.

Meanwhile, PBS has just sent out a press release detailing some upcoming programming on anti-KKK movements. One is a documentary on musician Daryl Davis, titled Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Its subject is a black musician/activist who meets and tries to befriend members of the KKK in an attempt to steer them away from taught hate. The second is a film focuses on black activists who protested D.W. Griffiths’ racist film, Birth of a Nation, upon its release in 1915.

Clearly, amplifying voices in opposition to hate is better than fulfilling morbid fascinations for empty fulfillment’s sake. But if Generation KKK turns out to be more documentary than reality TV, and if that documentary manages to reflect America’s current egregious ugliness in a new light, it would be a valid entry into the canon surrounding the very real rise of hate groups the country is experiencing. Information isn’t normalization, but entertainment is.

It’s absolutely worth raising questions about the validity of this show. But further steps like outright critical condemnation or even a boycott could ultimately well deserved, but should perhaps be deployed once A&E and the filmmakers actually get a chance to show audiences whether they’re offering interrogation or solely capitalizing on turning questions about the nature of hate in America into entertainment.