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‘The Boys in Red Hats’ review: Documentary’s refusal to take a side is telling and damning

Lessons learned.

The Boys in Red Hats offers further proof as to how politicized the world has become. In January 2019, a video became viral that showed Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann smirking in the face of Native American elder Nathan Phillips. Sandmann instantly became the face of white privilege. 

It turned out that things were not as simple as they were first reported. Phillips had actually approached the students and put himself in the center of a confrontation between the Covington High class and another group that had started the confrontation by yelling racially charged abuse. It was another in a string of incidents that divided opinions. 

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Director Johnathon Schroder – a Covington graduate – examines the event, the school itself, and the racial divide in America. The Boys in Red Hats takes a surprising stance from the beginning. The plan was not about busting myths created by the Trump administration; it is about clearing the good names of Covington and Sandmann.

School ties aside, it is an odd position for Schroder to take. He discusses his complicated relationship with Covington. He acknowledges it is an all male school populated mainly by Northern Kentucky’s wealthy and white elite. He looks back fondly on the camaraderie, but cannot forget how he was a target for bullying due to his poor background. (He was able to attend the school on a football scholarship.) It does not take long to realize The Boys in Red Hats is not going to take a strong stance. 

This is a running theme throughout the film. The Boys in Red Hats is torn between a defense based on embarrassment and anger and addressing what Sandmann and Covington represented. This is most clear when it takes the documentary nearly two-thirds of its run time to address what is seemingly the main issue – it is in the title! What the boys wore was in support of a white nationalist sympathizer. Who started the incident becomes secondary to what the scene represented to many. 

There are interesting ideas brought up. The idea that today’s journalism is more concerned with being immediate than legitimate is a valid argument worth investigating, for example. But when Schroder himself plays the victim after an unsuspecting Phillips refuses an interview, The Boys in Red Hats come off as disingenuous and dangerous.

The Boys in the Red Hats comes to theaters and virtual cinemas July 16

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