“Welcome to Leith” is a fascinating documentary about a small town in North Dakota and how they reacted when a well-known white supremacist moved in with the intention of turning it into a safe haven for his fellow racists.
This old fella named Craig Cobb found this tiny town in North Dakota with only 24 residents, which includes the children, and yet this town named Leith still has a functioning government, in that there is a mayor and a town council and all that good stuff. And Cobb saw this little rundown town in the middle of nowhere and saw an opportunity to take it over. What he didn’t see was a small group of people who didn’t want anything to do with their brand of foolishness. What ensued was a six-month stand off, with Cobb and his hate-filled compatriots on one side and some honest people who just wanted to live their lives without having to worry about any of this bullshit on the other.
The movie opens with wide shots of the town of Leith and the surrounding areas, which means lots of shots of rundown buildings, abandoned farms and overgrown fields, set to very ominous music, intoning that something evil is coming, and sure enough Craig Cobb would make for a perfect movie villain if he wasn’t just so damned real. His master plan is supervillain level genius…well, it would be if it wasn’t thwarted by a lack of potable water, but this guy has some vision and conviction, enough to buy twelve different plots of land around Leith so that he could sell them to people of the same mindset at him, stacking the deck so he could get himself elected mayor of the town, and then they could put all the swastikas and hate speech all over the place without fear of any reprimand.
Cobb, meanwhile, takes it upon himself to go to all the town meetings and get in peoples’ faces and really give them the business, and even held a town meeting cum press conference in which he hit the stage with black clad members of the National Socialist Movement or some garbage like that, all of them skin heads and sieg heiling their asses off. Meanwhile the town folk get together and try to figure out a way to get rid of this guy. Threats are made, and no one feels safe, not the residents who were already there, and not the new racist family that moved in with Cobb. Actually that one racist family might be more frustrating than old man Cobb. You see, Cobb fits in to the narrative that the old racists and bigots in this country are dying out and that the youth of this country are growing up to be far less judgmental and prejudiced and we just need to wait for the hate inside this guy to finally turn into some horrible cancer that will rot him from the inside out. But this family is infuriating because it’s a 28-year Iraq War veteran with a quarter-inch mustache and his girlfriend and their five, count ’em, FIVE god damned kids, all of whom are being brought up in an environment in which racism and hatred are the order of the day. Racism is taught, and these kids are getting top level lectures. A sad, never ending cycle of ignorance.
At one point in “Welcome to Leith,” the tensions are running so thick, I almost forgot it was a documentary as I half expected one of the town’s residents, a neighbor of Cobb, to walk over there one night with his gun and just finish the whole thing once and for all. There was even a scene in which the Mayor was talking to some other folks at the local bar (the only operating business in city limits) and confesses that he is afraid that this otherwise calm and nonviolent person will do just that.
Actually this scene in which the Mayor discusses the situation with some residents and the bar’s owner and operator showcases what makes this movie work so well, and it is because we are not hearing about these things secondhand, we are not having this conversation recounted to us, but instead the cameras are right there as it unfolds and we see it all for real. When the Mayor gets an important phone call with information no one wants to hear, we see him take it, we see the look on his face as he gets the news and the reactions of those around him as he shares it with them, and none of this stuff can be faked or forged, it is all real people dealing with some serious shit and it gets intense. It really is amazing that these filmmakers had the presence of mind to see this story unfold in front of them and get there with their cameras and capture as much of it as possible.
A large portion of the events in this story have a definite “Hollywood movie” feel to it, with so much inherent drama and ironies and explosive interactions. Hell, the Mayor of the town is shown wrangling some cattle, and he explains that he came mayor because the previous mayors died and he as just “next in line,” and he comes across as just a real simple, down to earth man’s man kind of guy, laid back, just doing his thing. Hell he’s been working in Leith politics since he was 16, so that tiny town, big country living is his whole world, it’s all he knows. And he said that before Craig Cobb came to his town, he didn’t even know what a white supremacist was, and isn’t that just the most amazing shit ever? He obviously never grew up in a world where race was the dominant issue, North Dakota is a harsh land where men are just men, it’s not the color of their skin but the cut of their jib and that jazz, know what I mean? So the least racist person in the world, one so not racist that he doesn’t even know it really exists comes head to head with THE MOST RACIST PERSON ever. How “Hollywood” can you get, right?
But then some of it has more of a “real life” feel; instead of shoot outs and violent revenge we get legal loopholes and county ordinances, and we get all the character complexity we need when we see, within minutes of each other, a scene in which the Mayor grills up some meat for everyone for dinner and another scene in which the Iraq War veteran hate monger bakes delicious cakes for his cute kids and gives us a glimpse at his hand written recipes (which included one for “bannanna” pancakes or something). He even sees the irony in it, telling the camera that even white supremacists eat normal food, so it’s not like these people don’t know they are outsiders and how they are viewed. They may be filled with hate but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are totally stupid and are not self-aware.
That’s the thing – these people, whom are horrible and hate filled, are still people, and when they talk about wanting to have a place to live and how it is illegal for them to be driven out of a neighborhood just because of what they believe, it is hard to argue with that, because that’s the truth. The First Amendment protects all speech and personal liberty, and the root of their argument is true, just because they are yokels who like to yell “White Power!” doesn’t mean they should be run out of town. But in this case, we are not talking about some racists who are being quietly racists within their own homes – these are people with an audaciously open agenda to take over this town and transform it into something else, while simultaneously condoning violence and hate crimes against non-white people (and the white people who are not on their side). It’s one thing to be pissed that Archie Bunker is moving in next door, it’s another thing when David Duke shows up in your neighborhood.
So “Welcome to Leith” is a pretty nuanced film, as least as much as it could be when dealing with people who are so cartoonishly hate filled. They put out flags on their lawns for nations that were “formally pure Aryan” like Germany and Norway, along with their own organizations flags, and it just makes one finally see the need for homeowners associations, know what I mean? And when a racist fella (I won’t say which one) finds out on television that he is not 100% European but actually has a decent amount of Sub-Saharan African in his genes, the delight to be had from that moment is wonderful. Oh the joyous irony of that reveal.
This is a great film, eye opening and disturbing and revealing all at once. It will make you despair but give you hope at the same time. Remarkable really.