Jonathan Schroder’s “The Boys in Red Hats” is an infuriating example of a film at war with itself. This is quite fitting since its subject is the January 18, 2019 face-to-face meeting between white high school students and a Native American protester at the Lincoln Memorial. The incident became a viral flashpoint on a teenager’s smile at the Native American elder.
As a former student of the student school, Covington Catholic in Kentucky, Schroder presents this film as his journey to understanding. He hears chaperones of pooping parents, restless former students, a student’s lawyer, and a current student whose identity is withheld. Black activists of the day and Covington’s penchant for supportive rallies are both put forward as explanations for teenage behavior.
Between a friendly voiceover and “TMZ Live” style bull sessions with his producer, Schroder’s exploratory pose comes to feel maddening. Yet the film also brings together soothingly sharp commentators who lay bare the power, racial dynamics, and aggression at play in the Lincoln Memorial encounter. These include Mohawk journalist Vincent Schilling; Anne Branigin, writer for The Root; and Allissa Richardson, a journalism professor who sees a “classic example of white privilege.”
Schroder’s request to interview the Catholic student from Covington who drew so much anger is rejected, and so is (in person) with Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer. (I don’t even know where to start with his weirdly nostalgic story of a teacher punching the head in Covington while he was a student.)
A failed ending points the finger at media prejudices and our “bubbles”. Some viewers of the Lincoln Memorial events might instead call on pioneering media theorists, The Marx Brothers: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
The boys in the red hats
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 27 minutes. In virtual cinemas.