November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Peter Hutchison
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.
The rise of hate crimes in recent years has led to an increase in documentaries and news reports about bigotry and its effects on our culture. “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” focuses on former extreme racists who have devoted their lives to helping others get out of the belief systems and lifestyles of hate groups. The three main stars of the film are Life After Hate co-founders Frank Meeink (the real-life inspiration for the dramatic film “American History X”) and Tony McAleer, as well as Sammy Rangel, a Latino former gang member who founded the group Formers Anonymous for ex-bigots. (Rangel says in the documentary that he used to hate white people.) All of the men openly admit to committing several hate crimes in the past, and they’ve spent time in prison.
The film points out several common denominators of people who join extreme racist groups: They usually had abusive childhoods; they feel mistreated by mainstream society and joined hate groups to have surrogate families; and they often abuse drugs and/or alcohol, even if they leave the hate groups. All of the ex-racists in this documentary fit this profile, and they talk about their ongoing struggles with substance abuse.
McAleer, who is originally from Vancouver, says he changed his ways after the births of his daughter and son. One of the more effective parts of the film is when he returns to his hometown to visit members at Temple Shalom, where his hate crimes started. Another standout scene is when McAleer and Rangel visit the Sikh temple (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where in 2012, a white supremacist murdered six people and wounded four others before committing suicide. In an emotionally powerful moment, the documentary shows McAleer and Rangel going to the scene of the crime to meet with Amar Kaleka, son of the gurdwara’s murdered founder, as they talk and pray about the tragedy. The movie’s archival footage includes the 2017 deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Other people featured in the movie are Randy Blazak, a criminologist and researcher of hate groups; Thomas Engelmann, founder and ex-member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which does a lot of recruiting in prisons; and author Michael Kimmel, a founder of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Also interviewed are former neo-Nazi Randy Furniss and African American activist/radio host Julius Long, who formed an unlikely friendship with each other after Long rescued Furniss from being attacked by an angry crowd protesting against white supremacist Richard Spencer’s 2017 speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Spencer is featured in the movie getting into a spirited debate about racism with Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini, who is no longer affiliated with Life After Hate. You might notice a pattern here: This is a very male-centric movie.
The documentary, although well-intentioned, can’t quite overcome its biggest flaw: It basically ignores women. Current and former racists who are women are not mentioned or interviewed. In addition, most of the men in these reform groups have children, but the mothers of these children aren’t interviewed either. The film never bothers to answer these questions: What are these mothers’ perspectives? How are these children being raised? What happens when one parent leaves a hate group, but the other parent wants to stay? The filmmakers don’t mention if any effort was made to include an adequate number of female viewpoints in the documentary.
Although it’s true that the vast majority of violent hate crimes are committed by men, and most of the white supremacists who march at rallies are men, it’s also indisputable that women are a big part of white supremacy, and women’s roles in this damaging movement have been irresponsibly overlooked in this documentary. For example, women who are racists have other insidious methods of inflicting fear on the targets of their hate, besides committing violence. Viral videos and several news reports have proven that female racists like to call the police on people of color who are minding their own business and not breaking the law.
“Healing From Hate” also avoids discussing that within the white supremacy movement is an inherent culture of misogyny because of the belief that white Christian males are the most superior of the human race. However, the movie does not address any sexist beliefs these former racists probably had while in the movement, and the documentary never mentions if their therapy also includes “detoxing” from the overwhelming sexism in white supremacy. (A more accurate title of the movie is “Healing From Male Racists,” not “Healing From Hate.”)
Since men are the only focus of this documentary about current and reformed bigots, it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture that male racists should be bigger priorities than female racists. And this documentary’s emphasis on male redemption is itself kind of sexist. Not surprisingly, all the group therapy leaders in this documentary are men, and almost everyone interviewed for this movie is a man.
A friendly reminder to the filmmakers: Females are 51 percent of the U.S. population. If you’re going to do a documentary whose subtitle is “Battle for the Soul of a Nation,” it would help if you included perspectives from the gender that represents the majority of this nation. “Healing From Hate” director Peter Hutchison plans to make two companion documentaries: “Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump” (based on the sociology work of Kimmel) and “Auschwitz: Facing the Legacy of Hatred,” which will focus on McAleer’s redemption by showing him visiting the sites of Polish death camps. Let’s hope that the makers of these companion documentaries don’t forget that healing from hatred doesn’t exist in only a male vacuum. Female voices need to be valued and heard too.
UPDATE: Media Education Foundation will release “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” in select U.S. cinemas on September 4, 2020.