Like it or not, Nazis and other racists have rights too.
That is a principle hard to accept, especially after the murders of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church by a white supremacist. Nonetheless, as the ACLU demonstrated in 1977 when it defended the rights of Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to many Holocaust survivors, the First Amendment applies to everyone, even to those who would deny that right to others.
Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s tense, incisive, and remarkably objective documentary, “Welcome to Leith,” investigates another case that challenges the limits of the First Amendment. Does freedom of speech still apply when the Nazis want not only to march into a community but also to move in and maybe seize control?
Leith, N.D., had seen better days. In 2012, with the population down to 24, the town was eager to welcome newcomers like Lee Cook, who had moved to Leith after his teenage daughter was murdered. And when Craig Cobb started buying up lots for development, many North Dakotans were enthusiastic.
But Cobb was an odd one. With the long gray hair and beard of a prophet or a homeless person, he strode around and spoke with a slithery smoothness. He was, as he proudly proclaimed, “the most famous racist in the world.” Through his repugnant website, he was inviting fellow Nazis to move to Leith and establish their own enclave.
In the resulting conflict, Cobb, until then seemingly rational, even charming, shows his diabolical side. He excoriates a town meeting with diatribes and threats. He even taunts Cook about his murdered daughter. He is not a nice person.
But in their fight to expel him, do the people of Leith cross the line from protecting their own rights to violating Cobb’s? In preserving their decent community, do they succumb to some of the indecent ideas he preaches?
Don’t expect Nichols and Walker to answer these questions. They have managed to gain intimate access to both sides, and their detachment and empathy intensify the film’s integrity and ambiguity. Like another documentary set in North Dakota, Jesse Moss’s “The Overnighters,” they follow the story for months as it unfolds, offering no editorial guidance except dates and places and a soundtrack by T. Griffith that underscores the growing angst and pending horror.
Welcome to Leith. Say goodbye to certitude.
★ ★ ★ ½
WELCOME TO LEITH
Written and directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker.
At Museum of Fine Arts.
85 minutes. Unrated (foul language and ideas, moral ambiguity).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.