Over the past few days, a short documentary film about what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend has become a viral phenomenon. Produced by HBO’s Vice News Tonight and hosted by journalist Elle Reeve, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” is restrained and understated. But viewed in light of Donald Trump’s repeated defense of white nationalist protesters, it decisively punctures the cloud of moral equivocation that’s been so petulantly conjured over the past several days by the president. Whereas Trump thinks the events of the weekend should be considered in myopic isolation—tallying up the number of blows that were landed by each of the “two sides” and assigning blame accordingly—the Vice documentary vividly shows that the white nationalists who came to Charlottesville did so in ravenous pursuit of violence. It was the whole point of “Unite the Right,” not an unfortunate side effect. Violence was the reason these people showed up, and it provided the animating logic that held together their otherwise incoherent ideas.
The first glimpse of this can be seen during the Vice doc’s bracing first scene, shot on Friday night on the campus of the University of Virginia. Against a pitch-black sky, hundreds of young white men—and a few women—march in formation while holding torches, many of them chanting “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and the Nazi-era slogan “blood and soil.” They look enraged and determined, and also like people you wouldn’t know were white supremacists if you saw them in the street. These are the people Trump said were “very fine,” were “protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” and “were there to innocently protest.”
At one point Vice’s camera appears to capture one of these protesters using a torch to assault someone. (One counterprotester, Tyler Magill, suffered a stroke a couple days later apparently due to complications from injuries sustained during Friday night’s events.) At another point one white nationalist lunges at another in jubilation, sharply extending his hand and barreling into his comrade in a sort of cannonball bro hug. He puts all his muscle and all his aggression into this maneuver. Even the camaraderie between these men is violent.
In a subsequent scene, a white nationalist in his late 30s named Christopher Cantwell, the de facto star of the Vice film, is explaining to Reeve why he is racist against black people. He brings up Tamir Rice—the 12-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun when he was ambushed and killed by police officers in Cleveland—and refers to him as a “little black asshole behaving like a savage.” Black people are just prone to violent behavior, Cantwell says, in a way that white people aren’t. When Reeve challenges this assertion by offering that white people are surely also capable of violence, Cantwell replies: “I didn’t say capable. Of course we’re capable. I’m carrying a pistol. I go to the gym all the time. I’m trying to make myself more capable of violence. I’m here to spread ideas, talk, in the hopes that somebody more capable will come along and do that.” He then derides Trump for being the kind of man who would “give his daughter to a Jew.”
The following morning, as the rally at Emancipation Park is being broken up, Reeve catches up with Cantwell and asks what’s happening. “We’re here obeying the law; we’re doing everything that we’re supposed to do, trying to express opinions. And the criminals are over there getting their way,” says the man who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has served jail time for criminal possession of stolen property, criminal possession of a weapon, and driving while intoxicated. Cantwell, an avowed libertarian, also argued in a 2012 Facebook post that killing police officers could be a legitimate form of political defiance against the state.
As Cantwell walks down the street shirtless and ranting, Reeve asks him whether he sees himself and his fellow white nationalists as “the real nonviolent protesters.” “I’m not even saying we’re nonviolent,” he replies. “I’m saying that we fuckin’ … didn’t aggress. We didn’t initiate force against anybody. We’re not ‘nonviolent.’ We’ll fuckin’ kill these people if we have to.”
Cantwell is the last person we see and hear from in the film. That conversation between him and Reeve occurs in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in what looks like a hotel room, but not before Cantwell brags to her about at least four guns he has been carrying throughout the weekend. He takes them out one by one and throws them on the bed, muttering the specifications of each one and sounding very pleased with himself. “I actually have another AK in that bag over there,” he says.
When he and Reeve sit down to talk, Cantwell beams as he tells her how hard it’s going to be to “top” the weekend in Charlottesville at future alt-right gatherings. Reeve reminds him that on Saturday, a woman died after being run over by a weaponized car.
“I think it was more than justified,” Cantwell replies, after arguing that the white nationalist allegedly driving the car had been spooked by counterprotesters and had no choice but to run them over. The look on Reeve’s face as he says this reflects the exhaustion she must have felt at that point, after spending more than 48 hours in proximity to dangerous, angry men.
One reason “Race and Terror” might be resonating so widely is that it’s not remotely propagandistic: Even though the white nationalists are what you remember afterward, you see some counterprotesters pushing and shoving and looking scary too. By not pretending those people weren’t there, the film actually makes itself an unassailable retort to Trump’s remarks about violence on “both sides”: Sure, it says, some people did physically brawl with the white nationalists who came to Charlottesville. But the white nationalists came specifically because of the promise of violence. They came because it gave them an opportunity to be aggressive and to fight. That was the fun part for them, and thanks to Vice we know now what that looks like.
In a now-deleted blog post titled “Aftermath,” Cantwell published a photograph of himself spraying a counterprotester in the face with pepper spray, called the murderer of Heather Heyer a “hero,” and generally relived the highs of his weekend. “I knew once the red hordes started swinging that I had to begin physically removing Democrats and communists with my pepper spray and bare hands, posthaste,” he wrote. “It was glorious. It seems like an eternity that I have wanted so badly to become a less verbose warrior.”
By giving Cantwell his closeup, the Vice documentary did so much more than merely call the person who wrote these words despicable, deranged, and dangerous. It showed us in unforgettable detail how he talks and how he moves—how he lives and breathes violence. It is an argument for not looking away.