Producers: Megan Schroder and Justin Jones Director: Jonathan Schroder Screenplay: Jonathan Schroder and Justin Jones Cast: Nicholas Sandmann and Nathan Phillips Distributor: Shark Dog Films
On January 18, 2019, an incident at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., attracted widespread media coverage. A large group of students from Covington Catholic, an all-boys high school in Park Hills, Kentucky, who were visiting the city as part of a school trip to participate in a March for Life, were confronted by a small cadre of hostile Black Hebrew Israelites. An activist in an Indigenous Peoples March, Nathan Phillips, interposed himself between the two groups beating a drum after the students began chanting school cheers. He came up to one of the students, Nicholas Sandmann, who did not move aside but smiled at him as some classmates continued chanting and doing a tomahawk chop with their hands.
The end of the episode, with Phillips and Sandmann staring at one another, was caught on film and covered by various news outlets, which generally characterized the students as aggressive and Sandmann’s smile as a derisive smirk. Clips went viral on social media, leading to widespread antagonism toward Covington and the students, with Sandmann taking the brunt of the criticism. Much was made of the fact that many of the students were wearing red MAGA caps.
Over the following days, however, the media revisited their coverage and offered a revised account, providing expanded context and corrected analysis. Sandmann was interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning America, saying he had done nothing wrong. Outrage subsided after a time, but controversy continues about what happened and what it implies about a divided America.
Jonathan Schroder, an alumnus of Covington, decided to investigate the incident to disclose what it said about the school and how people on all sides reacted to it. The resultant film is less a documentary than a cinematic essay. Some of it is devoted to his efforts to secure interviews with Sandmann and Phillips, both of whom are reluctant to engage. (Sandmann’s family has settled with some news outlets and is still suing others.) In the meantime he looks into Phillips’ troubled background and describes what he sees as an ethos of privilege at Covington, using his own experience there as evidence.
While unable to secure interviews with Sandmann or Phillips (though he does include excerpts from the former’s ABC interview and has a brief encounter with the latter, shot guerilla-style), Schroder periodically inserts conversations with his co-writer/producer Justin Jones about his efforts to gain access to them, and aims for even-handedness in other interviews. Om the one hand he talks with another student present in Washington (his face shrouded in shadow), and two parent chaperones who were with them; they naturally support Sandmann’s account, sometimes defiantly, sometimes tearfully.
On the other hand, he interviews a variety of spokespersons for indigenous American groups, who explain and defend Phillips’ actions, as well as scholars who try to be objective in analyzing not only what occurred but how it was perceived in different ways.
The film also includes a good deal of footage of the event, as well as clips from news accounts, both televised and print. His portrayal of Covington, however, is curiously limited. He narrates his own history there at length, using graphics and animation by First Fight, in the form of doodles in school notebooks, as transitional devices, and adds personal observations to it. And he incorporates footage of school sporting events, emphasizing crowd chants and rituals that some see as racist or classist. But though he offers shots of the campus, he doesn’t interview any school officials.
As to conclusions, Schroder emphasizes complexity, arguing that participants on both sides, as well as most of their detractors and supporters, live in bubbles that insulate them from having to deal with unpleasant facts; some admit that, and are even proud of it. In that way reaction to the 2019 episode reflects attitudes that are commonplace in today’s America more generally.
“The Boys in Red Hats” is competently put together—Jason Neff’s cinematography is rather homely, John Dilley’s editing somewhat jerky and Justin Kerkau’s score pretty generic, but it’s difficult to image that anyone could have refined such lumpy material into a smooth whole.
Ultimately, though, while the episode is intriguing, both for its intrinsic interest as a socio-political barometer and for what it says about news reporting and the power of social media, Schroder’s film inevitably feels both incomplete and padded.