When I was asked to review a documentary titled The Boys in Red Hats, my first thought was of that image that went viral in January 2019: a teenaged boy in a red MAGA hat, smirking at a drumming Native American elder. You’ll remember it if you had any exposure at all to social media then.
I figured that the documentarian would probably explore the motives of the Native American drummer and explain why we should know more about his culture. And either trash the privileged white dude and his chanting compatriots or explain why these poor kids were misunderstood.
In fact, The Boys in Red Hats is an even-handed take on this brief incident, which generated a great deal of media coverage and lawsuits but little effort at understanding. Writer/director and narrator Jonathan Schroder is a graduate of Covington Catholic High School, the school represented by the group filmed chanting their school songs and doing tomahawk chops while the Native American elder drummed, and a 17-year-old named Nicholas Sandmann smirked. Or smiled. But it turned out, as it often does, that the story is longer and more complex than the two-minute video played repeatedly on Twitter and YouTube. The fact that many of the students were wearing Make America Great Again hats led to the instant assumption that the event was a pro-Trump/anti-Trump confrontation.
Schroder and supervising producer Justin Jones play roles in the documentary; we see them strategizing their best approach to the Sandmann family to get an interview with Nicholas and how to learn more about Nathan Phillips, the Omaha Nation elder and Vietnam vet who was drumming to bring peace to a chaotic scene.
Briefly, the story is that the students from Cov Cath (as it’s known by locals) were in Washington DC for the anti-abortion March for Life in January 2019. Their chaperones told them to meet at the Lincoln Memorial after the event, where buses would pick them up. While they were there, a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites came to the scene and began to harass and insult the students and nearby Native Americans, according to the filmmaker, who acquired two hours of videotape of the event. The students had no idea what to do, so they started a pep rally. That was the confrontation that brought Phillips in to drum and encourage peace.
The MAGA-capped teenagers who demonstrated in the March for Life event were students at Covington Catholic High School, an all-male school in Park Hills, Ky., a wealthy, 97 percent white suburb of Cincinnati. “We’re all Colonels,” Schroder and his interviewees say proudly. The school’s Colonels team names are a reference to the honorific title bestowed by the commonwealth of Kentucky. (The honorific has its own long Wikipedia page. Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame was one of the awardees.)
The controversy was enhanced when Sandmann’s wealthy parents hired a public relations firm to groom their son for interviews and filed multiple lawsuits against various news media. Schroder’s attempts to gain an interview, some of them very creative, were all unsuccessful. He also failed to interview Phillips. Late in the film, Schroder goes to Phillips’ home to try to interview him and Phillips threatens to call police.
The film includes interviews with Cov Cath alumni and parents, several journalism professors, and a Native American journalist named Vincent Schilling. Schilling gives his view of the brouhaha near the end of the film. “If any of these young men are listening, I’d like to say that if you can, try to empathize with people in this world who may not have what you have, people who aren’t walking in your shoes.”
Schroder himself sums up the film and the event as a case of our insularity and our fierce instinct to defend our own beliefs. We’re all in our bubbles and we love our bubbles. “The only winners are the 24-hour news networks and the social media conglomerates,” he says. In a separate interview, he said, “I hope audiences consider the importance of personal research and vetting news stories. It’s important to not outsource that responsibility to the media. … think twice before launching a Twitter rant or simply retweeting something they believe to be true.”
The Boys in Red Hats opens today in the Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema.
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