In 2016, following the election of Donald Trump, a video leaked of Richard Spencer, one of the outspoken advocators of the alt-right (the "lower-case KKK", as Aziz Ansari dubbed the movement), at a conference in Washington D.C.. After making a speech expressing giddy delight about the election results and how that benefits white people, Spencer shouted "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" before taking a sip of whiskey. The entirely male audience, mostly young and entirely white, saluted back at him, clearly enthralled by the man on stage with a tailored vest and a Hitler haircut. It was a big, scary signifier that Trump's racist rhetoric wasn't healthy for America. Then a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville happened - and it was the beginning of the end.
Opening with a James Baldwin quote, Daniel Lombroso's 'White Noise' is a disturbing and rather depressing examination of the alt-right, a conservative movement that thrives on the rejection of mainstream media and often expresses opposition to racial, religious, or gender equality. Instead of peeling back the layers of how this movement was founded, the documentary focuses on three of its flashier frontpeople - Spencer, Lauren Southern, and Mike Cernovich - and shows audiences the impact of leaders' words upon impressionable influencers and authors.
It's an immersive approach and Lombroso, in his debut feature, shows impressive restraint in his presentation. There aren't talking heads to add commentary or context to the proceedings, just the raw unaltered footage of these figures practicing what they preach, going from one event to the next. Lambroso sits back and lets them chat, but not in an out-of-control Joe Rogan podcast way. The tight editing and the trust Lambroso has gained from his subjects results in some painful, often gruesomely intimate moments. Meanwhile, the alt-right begins its transition from online trolling into national headlines.
In contrast to Spencer's foppish theatricality is Mike Cernovich, a social media personality who made a name for himself by being a "men's right advocate" and outspoken supporter of antifeminism. Constantly flogging his speaking engagements, self-help books and dietary supplements, Cernovich denounces Spencer, claiming they need to get rid of any Nazis who are tarnishing the brand of what he calls the "new right." Though his candour sparks ire among sensibly-minded individuals (in one scene, he's heckled at a speaking event), it inspires radical right-leaning nutjobs to commit heinous acts. In quieter moments where the camera is just rolling, we learn he's only in it for the money, understanding that being an arsehole is what fuels supporters and leads them to buy his awful merch.
Finally, there's Lauren Southern. She's young, attractive, and has the biggest reach with her immense social media following, ranging from YouTube to Instagram. She understands how easily fans can be manipulated, delivering white nationalist jargon in a tidy "rape culture doesn't exist" package. Southern proves the more interesting figure of the documentary, even though she's a Canadian xenophobe and pegs herself a fearless blonde warrior, pulling crazy stunts like blocking ships carrying refugees across the Mediterranean Sea or pestering migrants in Paris. But she expresses doubt about her future with political activism and talks about finding a husband, settling down, and having babies. Ironically, she wants to have the best of both worlds: putting herself out in the world as a strong female role model while pushing for the same agenda that would solidify gender norms and hold back serious career advancements.
The longer we stay with these figures, the more we realise that they aren't just dangerous and ugly, driven by a thirst for celebrity to exploit the worst aspects of human nature, but they're also rather pathetic. "I want to be a household name," Cernovich says. Later, we see him jogging awkwardly in exercise gear before he addresses an online theory that he lives off the receipts of his divorce. "It's pretty alpha to get paid alimony by a woman, isn't it?" he asks, rather desperately. Spencer begins by telling us, "I want to influence history," But, over a montage of his teenage theatre production pictures, he adds that he "always wanted to be a theatre guy," later stating, "I am an artist before I am a politician." Southern shares her belief that "it really puts you on the map if you're willing to espouse views that are quite shocking," something she admits she's been doing since she was a child in order to get attention.
"It's pretty alpha to get paid alimony by a woman, isn't it?" Mike Cernovich asks, rather desperately.
'White Noise' not only shows the downside of being associated with the alt-right movement, it also shows the ups that are involved as well. In the case for Southern, there are moments where she's being positively greeted by random strangers who want to show their appreciation for her activism. Cernovich's bile is quoted by Fox News and eventually by President Trump himself. Spencer clearly loves the spotlight and adoration of his followers. But the downs are plentiful, like a scene where Spencer is completely shouted offstage before he can even get a full sentence out. Southern has to deftly fend off a sleazy approach by Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes ("See, the thing is, because my moral compass tells me you have a wife and kids, it's not even in my realm of consideration") and suffer through a dull date with a white nationalist Ken doll. She says she'd like to have a family someday - he responds by saying procreation is the duty and responsibility of white Europeans, and if you happen to love your spouse and children, that's a bonus.
None of the movie's subjects own up to how their actions might have caused the death of anti-Nazi activist Heather Heyer during the "Unite the Right" rally, or those who were murdered in cold blood during the Christchurch mosque massacre or the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting by alt-right extremists. Spencer, Southern, and Cernovich play the sympathy card, shrugging off how anyone could interpret their words as a call to incite violence. "They're disobeying me," Spencer says to the camera while hiding out at a family home in Montana (where he's currently residing as he fends off several civil lawsuits). According to Cernovich: "I'm a good guy. I've said a few dodgy things over the years. Fuck you."
Though 'White Noise' might be accused of giving another platform to this movement of hate, and isn't the fiery indictment of white supremacy you might want it to be, it does show how deeply racism is embedded into society. We've got a lot of work to do in order to dig it out.