Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival.
Just a couple of days before I saw Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary Alt-Right: Age of Rage, the white nationalist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer said he would no longer hold publicized events at college campuses. “When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun,” he complained, blaming the anti-fascist antifa movement for preventing people from attending lectures. “Antifa is winning.”
The question of who is “winning” the battle over extreme white supremacy changes constantly, which is one of the difficulties Age of Rage faces. Depending on where you start and stop a story about the alt-right, it might seem like a dangerous fringe movement, a cultural vanguard, or a complete joke. The film focuses on the movement’s ascendance in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, leading up to the tragic events of a rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina last August — when an attendee rammed his car through a crowd, killing protester Heather Heyer and injuring others. Age of Rage is most effective not at “explaining” the alt-right, but at providing a snapshot of it, alongside its anti-fascist opposition.
Traditional narrative documentary.
The “alt-right” movement seeks to rebrand white nationalism as hip, intellectual, and socially acceptable. Spencer, a media-savvy racist, is one of its key architects. He wants to put the alt-right on the political map with a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. But as the film reminds us at the beginning, Charlottesville’s legacy turned out far darker than Spencer imagined.
Meanwhile, longtime anti-fascist activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins runs One People’s Project, which publicizes the identities and hateful rhetoric of white supremacists. Jenkins follows Spencer and other alt-right figures in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, helping organize protests and disrupt events. And like Spencer, Jenkins eventually ends up in Charlottesville.
Spencer and Jenkins’ parallel stories provide the documentary’s throughline, culminating in the bloody disaster of Unite the Right. Along the way, we get a primer on the alt-right’s political origins, a short history of Jenkins’ activism, and an ongoing discussion of whether alt-right rhetoric is dangerous enough to justify aggressive de-platforming, or even violence. That includes extensive interviews with white supremacist Jared Taylor and Southern Poverty Law Center member Mark Potok, along with shorter talks with other antifa and alt-right adherents.
Age of Rage sets the personal conflict between Spencer and Jenkins against the backdrop of their larger ideological struggle. Jenkins, who is black, tracks white supremacists to film and “dox” them — Spencer introduces him with a weirdly theatrical description of “Daryle the Barrel,” like a hardboiled detective talking about a mob boss. The two trade insults when they meet, and Spencer and other alt-right figures profess outrage at supposedly being harassed and silenced, before explaining their plans to divide America (or its remains, since Spencer says the US would have to dissolve first) into race-specific “ethnostates.”
The film sporadically and loosely links the alt-right’s rhetoric to earlier historical atrocities. It opens with a 1930s American Nazi party rally and a quote attributed to Hegel: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” And it lightly covers the movement’s foundations, including older white supremacist groups and racist internet communities.
Beyond specific personalities, Age of Rage traces the tense months between Trump’s inauguration and Charlottesville in the first half of 2017 — from the infamous punching of Richard Spencer to Berkeley rioters protesting “alt-lite” pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. While Trump doesn’t get much airtime, Spencer and other white supremacists describe him as a sign that white America is ready to be recruited, and his election helps galvanize some of the less radical antifa supporters we see into action.
Lough captures the flow of Jenkins’ and Spencer’s activism over the course of months, during which Jenkins comes off as a complex and compelling character. Starting out in the world of punk rock, he founded One People’s Project nearly two decades ago, making him witness to a dramatic shift in white supremacist tactics and rhetoric. He’s also one of relatively few high-profile people who identifies with antifa. When he fields touchy questions about the movement’s willingness to use violence against people like Spencer, he’s got more to lose than an anonymous protester, especially because he’s apparently spent years obscuring the full extent of his activism to his family.
Spencer, by contrast, is remarkably boring to watch. This is partly an oversaturation problem, since he’s been profiled numerous times, but it’s also because Spencer carefully crafts his self-image to make the alt-right look normal. Age of Rage skirts the edge of glamorizing Spencer, with shots of the man pensively smoking cigarettes or drinking whiskey. More often, the film just feels like it’s following a Nietzsche-obsessed, perpetually smirking young election strategist whose donor class includes 4chan and the KKK.
This veneer of respectability is (or was, at least, before Charlottesville) one of the scary things about the alt-right. Age of Rage sometimes highlights the contrast between Spencer’s tweedy image and his extreme beliefs, for example, by asking how exactly he would establish his ethnostates. But it doesn’t push back on the apocalyptic worldview these moments reveal. Making Spencer try to spell out the details of what he’s called a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” — a basically oxymoronic claim — would help explain why antifa protesters believe alt-right-style fascism is categorically different from general right-wing politics. It would also be more compelling to watch than monologues about IQ differences between races and anti-white oppression — rhetoric that’s not unique to the alt-right, or even the “far right,” and may sadly not be as shocking as the filmmakers might intend.
Much like Lough’s 2017 film The New Radical, about technoanarchist Cody Wilson and the cryptowarrior movement, Age of Rage gives its controversial figures an open platform to present their opinions. It lets Spencer and Taylor explain their philosophies at length, cutting away periodically for rebuttals by Potok or other interviewees. But the film doesn’t really get into the bizarre overlapping movements that made the alt-right powerful but unstable. (There’s an interview with alt-right-adjacent Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, for instance, but nothing about McInnes’ strange quasi-gang the Proud Boys, named after a song from The Lion King and known for elaborate rules regarding masturbation.) And the film wraps up soon after Charlottesville, rather than following the way those movements splintered and reformed in its aftermath.
It’s hard to objectively evaluate a film like Age of Rage when its events are still so fresh. I’m not sure whether its footage of Unite the Right would seem as potent to someone who hadn’t been following the original news with horror, or whether protesters’ ominous comments about Trump will be as easily understandable to future audiences. But it gets at some of the chaos and fear that defined 2017 — in a way that could help us make sense of it in the years to come.
Likely PG-13, for language and mostly non-graphic shots of the protests, including the crash that killed Heyer.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage is currently seeking distribution, but considering its timeliness, it seems likely that it’ll turn up on a streaming service soon.