On January 18, 2019, a perfect storm involving a group of mostly white high school boys from the South, a Native American elder and some of his followers as well as members of an activist organization called the Black Hebrew Israelites converged on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., following a March for Life rally. What followed next made international news when one of the boys, Nick Sandmann, 17, came face-to-face with Native American elder and activist Nathan Phillips as he chanted, banged his drum and made his way through the boisterous crowd.
The moment was recorded on camera and an edited version of Sandmann and Phillips standing mere inches away from each other made headlines around the world, with news outlets and many on social media interpreting the boy’s expression as smug and disrespectful, and yet another example of white privilege. Sandmann and some of the other boys were wearing MAGA hats, which triggered those who view them as a racist symbol. Everyone, it seemed, saw the news story, and the coverage of it, at least initially, painted Sandmann and the other boys on the hallowed memorial’s steps as villains. Covington Catholic, the all-boys Kentucky parochial school that the students attended, became the target of public admonishment and derision. School officials closed the campus for a few days to figure out how to cope with the negative publicity.
No one was more embarrassed or angered by the footage than Jonathan Schroder, a filmmaker and graduate of the historic and prestigious all-boys school in Northern Kentucky. Schroder wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter of the school, having had a falling out with a teacher who allegedly struck him in class for talking during his senior year. But he was curious to find out what led up to the “smirk heard round the world,” so he sought out and found more than two hours of footage leading up to the Lincoln Memorial confrontation, which gave him a different perspective on the events of that day.
In the days and weeks that followed, some in the media began to clarify the events of January 18 but, by then, the damage to the reputation of Sandmann and the students of Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Ky., was done. Sandmann eventually sued several major news outlets and settled out of court with a few of them for an undisclosed sum. Other lawsuits are pending.
Gathering additional research, Schroder embarked on making his documentary. The Boys In Red Hats puts the events and people involved in a new light, with interviews from journalists, academics, alumni, a student (not Sandmann) that was present, parents and others to dissect what happened. The documentary also explores what passes for journalism nowadays, with its emphasis on immediacy over accuracy. Schroder himself is integrated into the story (albeit reluctantly) as he and the film’s writer and producer Justin Jones, discuss achieving objectivity and balance and as Schroder tries in vain to interview Sandmann and Phillips on-camera. At one point, the filmmaker goes full Michael Moore/Roger & Me as he travels five-hours by car to Phillips’ house to speak with him, only to be rebuffed at the door.
Schroder may not seem the obvious filmmaker to tackle such a politically charged subject that still reverberates two-and-a-half years after the infamous stare-off. After fleeing Kentucky to New York after graduation more than two decades ago, he mostly worked in television production on children’s and comedy cable channels. Most notably, Schroder created and executive produced Nat Geo Wild’s series The Incredible Dr. Pol about a country veterinarian, which ran for 19 seasons.
But the incident involving Sandmann and Phillips struck a chord with Schroder, who set out to make documentary that would enlighten viewers as to what really happened that winter day in Washington, how it was covered and why there is often more to a story than meets the eye.
The Boys In Red Hats, produced through Schroder’s Shark Dog Films, opens in select theaters (in person and virtual) beginning July 16.
Speaking by phone from Cincinnati, across the river from Covington, Ky., where Schroder grew up and played high school football, he spoke about tackling the controversy and striving for objectivity and perspective to a historic event.
Angela Dawson: How do you finding objectivity in a world of less objectivity in our media?
Jonathan Schroder: One of the biggest challenges for me as a filmmaker was trying to keep the material objective. It would have been very easy for me to make a “rah-rah, go Covington Catholic, these kids did nothing wrong” movie, and just come out against the media, but I purposely did not go down that route. Even though it would have been an easy route, to me it just would have been lazy filmmaking.
Even though there were people from both sides of the aisle that I would sit across from and their words would make me squirm in my seat, I toughed it out. Hopefully, the viewer won’t have to tough it out but rather find it entertaining. But there were some tough questions that needed to be asked.
Dawson: This happened less than three years ago and the wounds are still fresh. What feedback have you gotten from the film?
Schroder: It is fair and balanced and accurately represents both sides of the story, but in a respectful way. My (interview) subjects had some harsh things to say about those who disagree with them but I wanted to keep this as polite and civil as possible.
Another route I could have gone is just destroying the kids and their reputations—and part of me wanted to, and part of me wanted to defend the boys, so I had to find a happy medium.
Dawson: You have a sounding board in your producer Justin Jones. Throughout the film, we’re watching your progress and thought-process as a filmmaker in making this documentary while you’re also elaborating on what happened at this confrontation and the fallout from it.
Schroder: Thank God for Justin Jones because, unlike me, he didn’t attend an all-boys private school. He attended a public school outside of Detroit. He was constantly reminding me to explain to the viewer what it’s like to go to (Covington Catholic), what’s the culture like, what do they teach you there and how are you supposed to behave?
When an outsider sees the boys chanting and jumping up and down when they’re facing adversity, it looks absurd, obnoxious and horrible. But when I watched it, I thought, “Of course they’re going to do that because that’s what they do.”
Dawson: You have a broad range of people who explain the situation from their viewpoint. How difficult or easy was it get them to participate?
Schroder: As time went on, it got easier and easier to get subjects to speak on camera. When it first happened, though, nobody wanted to speak with me. Those who did speak with me, the biggest challenge was listening to them speak (just like the media they follow) speak. I was watching the news constantly: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and CNBC, and what was really shocking to me was how people can repeat—almost verbatim—exactly what the talking heads on CNN or Fox News said—and I’m talking to the word. I heard exactly the same thing the next day from one of my interview subjects. So, the first thing I did is whenever they said something that I’d just heard on Fox News or CNN or MSNBC, I would cut that from the film—one-hundred percent. I wanted to get a fresh perspective and not what Rachel Maddow thinks or what Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity think.
Dawson: Is it possible for the media to return to accurate, balanced, fair, not knee-jerk journalism?
Schroder: I hope so, and I hope that this film can contribute to that. It’s really tough when advertisers and news websites are just dying for clicks. They don’t care what you’re clicking on as long as they get that click. That’s money in their pocket. Websites like Drudge Report, CNN.com and nytimes.com, by getting the clicks and us staying divisive against each other, it’s a great way for them to profit.
Dawson: Your dogged pursuit of interviewing Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann throughout the documentary reminded in a way of Michael Moore’s documentary, Roger & Me. Did you think about while you were making your film?
Schroder: It didn’t cross my mind when I began the film that I was actually going to be in it. I was listening to my producers and friends of mine who are filmmakers who encouraged me to be in the film. But I was very stubborn until the very end. I insisted I wasn’t going to be in it. I don’t want to be Michael Moore. But I finally agreed to shoot a test scene with Justin (the producer) and just talk about what was going on and be myself. So, Justin and I shot a couple of test scenes. I guess we have a chemistry together and it worked out, and I finally agreed to be in my own movie. I can honestly say, though, never again.
Dawson: You previously worked for a long time for National Geographic making programs that weren’t controversial. Were you looking for a subject to tackle that was a little more dangerous, in a way?
Schroder: I wasn’t looking for anything at the time. I worked fulltime for National Geographic. When I saw the video initially (of the confrontation) and then when I saw it in its full context, I knew that I was going to make this documentary. My emotional journey went from anger, disgust, embarrassment and humiliation—I was so mad at the boys—but once I found out what really happened and saw the video in its full context, my goal was to take the viewer on that same emotional journey from when they saw the video to when all the information was released about the incident. I didn’t set out to make anything.
Dawson: You were ambivalent because of that incident with a teacher, right?
Schroder: Yeah, and I’d say I’m definitely in the minority of people who went to Covington Catholic and would dare say anything negative about the institution. I’m in Cincinnati now, right across the river. I’m actually looking out my window at the city of Covington. Around these parts, Covington Catholic is revered and respected. It’s one of the most respected institutions that I can think of in the area. So, to say anything negative at all about it is taboo.
Dawson: What’s been the upshot there since the event? Has the school made institutional changes? What’s happened in the community?
Schroder: I really can’t speak to that. I’m not sure if Covington Catholic has implemented diversity education. That’s something that they’ve severely lacked. For the most part, it happened a couple of years ago and it’s been forgotten about, and it’s business as usual. I don’t have any facts to speak to that, though.
Dawson: Did you try to get any of the members of the Black Hebrew Israelites that were at the Lincoln Memorial that day?
Schroder: Yes. I texted. I found one of the guys on Instagram and was messaging him there basically begging any Black Hebrew Israelite to be on camera, and it was radio silence.
Dawson: What do you hope to achieve with The Boys In Red Hats?
Schroder: I’d like viewers to have an open and honest discussion with someone who doesn’t share their political beliefs. It’s very hard to get people to listen to someone with opposing viewpoints. Everyone’s guilty of this. We like to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. Well, maybe you should have a visit or conversation with someone who doesn’t share your political beliefs, and maybe have that conversation in a decent, respectful way, and not demonize a person because of their political beliefs.
A lot of people look at the title and the poster and they assume it’s going to be a Trump defense piece. I can say that’s definitely not the case. I’m surprised at how surprised people are on how balanced it is. We’re so used to biased pieces that I think viewers automatically assume it’s going to be about one thing and have a certain stance but I tried to go old-school and make it as fair and balanced as possible.
Dawson: What do you think you’ll be focusing on next with your production company, Shark Dog Films?
Schroder: I’m working on a fishing show and I’m working on a political comedy documentary. I think I’m onto something good here.