“America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again,” proclaims ACLU attorney Jeffery Robinson from a stage early in the new documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, “and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of this earth.” When he continues, “those two things are not mutually exclusive,” the audience erupts in applause. One gets the sense that the vast majority of the people who came to hear Robinson’s TED Talk-style lecture agreed with him before he uttered a word — a quality they’ll likely share with the viewers of the film version of his slideshow presentation.
Directed by sisters Sarah and Emily Kunstler, Who We Are represents one facet of a larger project of the same name aiming to “correct the American narrative on our history of racism.” That’s a worthy and urgent goal, and there’s no denying that Robinson is an engaging speaker. Instead of arguing how we should remember the past, he marshals primary sources to let historical facts and personages speak for themselves. Many may balk at the statement “America was founded on white supremacy,” but it remains the case that enslaved people were first brought to the U.S. in 1619, that no less than twelve presidents owned slaves and that, from the three-fifths compromise to mass incarceration today, the dehumanization of Black people has been sanctioned, if not led, by government policies.
Frequently moving, but never transcends its lecture format.
For many progressives, the broad strokes of Who We Are will be more than familiar. It’s in the details that the doc, which won an audience award at this year’s SXSW, comes alive, whether through historical items that vivify the past or the many interviews that Robinson conducts with activists, educators and survivors. It’s striking enough to see Robinson read an ad that President Andrew Jackson posted in 1804 for a runaway “mulatto man slave,” in which he offers, in addition to the $50 reward, “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.” (Harriet Tubman can’t replace Old Hickory on the $20 bill fast enough.)
History feels even more alive when Robinson visits a slavery museum in Charleston and takes in the sight of ankle shackles meant for an enslaved child of three or four, or when he meets the daughter of Elmore Bolling, a well-to-do businessman lynched in 1947, who recalls her family’s overnight transition from prosperity to poverty after her father’s murder. Other interviewees include Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, who speaks movingly of having to defend her son during his postmortem trial by media in the midst of grieving his death.
Who We Are is just as compelling when Robinson turns to his personal history in the film’s final stretch, which is probably the segment where it’s clearest he’s mostly addressing a white audience that’s either already accepting or ready to be convinced of their racial privileges. Robinson’s road to Harvard Law School began with his being one of the few black students at his Catholic school in the years after Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned school segregation. And he was able to attend that school because white friends of his “unicorn parents” had purchased a house in their name in a white neighborhood to get around real-estate practices that enforce housing segregation. “This is what luck looks like,” Robinson says of his life, before asking the audience to reconsider the American myth of meritocracy.
Despite its moving conversations, Who We Are never transcends its lecture format. Visually, it’s not quite as snoozy as the typical PBS fare, and it may have too much bite to end up on public television. But its summarization of 400 years of America’s past — with a heavy focus on legal history — certainly narrows its natural base. The doc might well appeal only to those willing to plunk down two hours for a talk on the historical roots of American racism, i.e., the audience probably in the least need of its important lessons.
Venue: SXSW 2021 (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: Off Center Media
Directors: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Producers: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler, Jeffery Robinson, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Andrea Crabtree+Keller, Vanessa Hope, Susan Korda, Katharine Nephew, Jayashri Wyatt
Executive producer: Ted Hope, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., Fred Crosetto, Ellison Foundation, The Greenstein Family Foundation, Nader & Yeganeh Naini, Bryan & Christine White
Director of photography: Jesse Wakeman
Editor: Emily Kunstler
Composer: Kathryn Bostic