One of the best arguments against white supremacy is spending time with white supremacists. A few minutes in the company of these pseudo-intellectual bumblefucks will put a hasty end to any notions you might be harboring about a Master Race, and Daniel Lombroso’s excellent documentary WHITE NOISE devotes an entire hour-and-a-half to getting up close and personal with three of the alt-right’s most celebrated white nationalist superstars. The first feature film produced by The Atlantic, it’s a patient, probing piece of work that spends three years embedded with some of the worst people on the planet, careful never to editorialize nor take any cheap shots, instead allowing them plenty of room to expose the stupidity and emptiness of their ideas all on their own.
Some critics have taken issue with Lombroso’s approach, arguing that to give these noxious views any camera time at all is a form of “platforming,” and apparently the fact that the director doesn’t interrupt his subjects every five minutes to wag his finger and tell them why they’re wrong makes him part of the problem. (I think sometimes our current hall monitor culture guardians would’ve been much happier under Joseph Breen and the Hays Code, when movies were mandated to come out and explain the morals of their story for all the idiots in the audience.) Unfortunately, these ideas have always been around in the world anyway, and we can either deal with them out in the open like adults or give these horrible people another excuse to complain about how “silenced” and “oppressed” they are, which is really all they ever wanted to do in the first place.
Like most conservative media, white nationalism is a grievance industry. As preening neo-Nazi Richard Spencer explains in the film, it’s “a reaction to seeing your culture demeaned,” because this failed theater director and trust fund brat has clearly had the roughest of roads being born ridiculously rich and white. Of course Spencer swears up and down that he’s not an actual Nazi, which is why he throws one-armed salutes yelling “Hail Trump!” while he and his followers all have Himmler 90210 haircuts, chilling out and listening to Wagner when they’re not shouting at the “Lügenpresse.” It’s a sick sort of cosplay for these creeps, and you imagine they’d be singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” if only any one of them could carry a tune.
But to quote John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski,” you can “say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude. At least it’s an ethos.” Men’s rights activist and vitamin supplement huckster Mike Cernovich seems to lack Spencer’s seething hatreds, or really any core beliefs at all. One of those extremely online guys for whom everything’s “for the lulz,” Cernovich’s career took off by amplifying ridiculous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health that earned him favs from her opponent, and whether we’re talking Pizzagate or QAnon nonsense there’s really no bullshit rank enough that this guy won’t shill for it somehow. A self-proclaimed “alpha male” who lives off alimony from his first wife, Cernovich is currently married to an Iranian woman yet sees no disconnect with his white nationalist rhetoric. He’s one of the most profoundly unreflective people I have ever seen in a movie.
The third subject is Canadian anti-immigration activist Lauren Southern, one of those interchangeable fascist blondes that will probably always have a place in the cable news punditocracy for long as guys still like to jerk off in front of the TV after a hard day of contemplating hate crimes. Just 22 years old when the film started shooting, she parrots all sorts of talking points that sound entirely divorced from any firsthand personal experience (“Does this look like Paris to you?” she asks incredulously, while walking down a street that does indeed look very much like Paris.) Southern comes off as an extremely unintelligent person addicted to the instantaneous adulation of social media, and being a hot girl selling hate is probably the easiest way to rack up those likes and follows. It feels like an insufferable phase she happens to be going through in front of millions, and for all her talk about preserving her heritage, by the end of the movie she’ll be pregnant with a baby whose daddy isn’t white.
Lombroso follows these three from the triumph of Trump’s surprise election to the fallout from Spencer’s disastrous Unite The Right rally and the murder of Heather Heyer. (Ever the concerned humanitarian, Cernovich is furious because a dead girl is bad for his skin-care product sales.) All are brought low over the years chronicled in “White Noise,” with Southern suffering a particularly gross encounter with Vice Media founder and Proud Boys bozo Gavin McInnes, who for some reason is dressed like a villain in a board game. There are few images from this year in film I’ve found more hilariously pathetic than the sight of Spencer sitting on a ski lift alone, feeling sorry for himself.
Would Lombroso have been able to capture any of these moments if he’d adopted the more hectoring, gotcha approach prescribed by his critics? Of course not. “White Noise” trusts the viewer enough to treat us like adults who can see for ourselves the vast emptiness in the lives of these people, their intense need for the validation of strangers and how desperately they cling to the notion of birthright superiority because they have no other ideas or accomplishments of which to speak.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.