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‘Documenting Hate’ revisits Charlottesville violence one year later

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Just shy of the one-year anniversary of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, “Frontline” and ProPublica have collaborated on “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” a sobering documentary on the mainstreaming of such groups, which probes their roots while seeking to identify some of their members.

The one-hour film begins in 2017, with reporter A.C. Thompson covering the violence that erupted during the “Unite the Right” march — footage that’s presented in raw, at-times-disturbing fashion, including video of the car that plowed into the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

The cameras also capture vicious attacks on counter-protestors, while the local police are shown largely standing idly by.

Through investigative legwork, Thompson explores how those involved in brutal confrontations in Virginia had engaged in similar acts at other events, tracking down and confronting some of them, including one who was serving in the US military, and another who worked for a major defense contractor.

Thompson also steps back to examine the bigger picture, describing the rally as “a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement.” In an interview, former Charlottesville mayor Mike Signer maintains that the hatred the groups represent has for the first time been “invited” into the political mainstream.

President Trump’s response

Inevitably, that discussion includes President Donald Trump’s response to Charlottesville, and whether his “on many sides” equivocation in condemning the violence has further emboldened extremists.

Thompson approaches the issue from multiple angles. He tracks the way the groups communicate among their members, and spotlights how brazen many were about parading through the public square spouting racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric — brandishing torches while chanting “Jews will not replace us” — as well as videos of their training regimen and recruitment techniques.

The production also raises troubling questions about how effectively law enforcement and the military are responding to these growing concerns, which includes second-guessing from retired FBI agent Mike German and Rep. Keith Ellison.

“Documenting Hate” isn’t the first word on what happened in Charlottesville — Vice News aired its own stark coverage in the immediate aftermath — and surely won’t be the last. MSNBC has its own documentary airing this month, and “Frontline” will follow up with another project about Neo-Nazis in America in the fall.

These are not, admittedly, comfortable programs to watch. But “Frontline” is once again performing a valuable service by shining a light on such extremism, leaving the hope that sunlight really is, as often advertised, the best disinfectant.