After every major incident of violent racism in America, it’s common to hear elected officials attempt to comfort the nation with statements to the tune of “this is not who we are”. But as directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler illustrate through their aptly titled new documentary, present and historical racism is at the core of American society. Though it may not be entirely revelatory for more informed viewers, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is a valuable reminder of an ongoing societal affliction.
Though the Kunstlers share directing credit, the driving force behind this topical film is Jeffrey Robinson, an attorney and deputy legal director at ACLU with a passion for social justice and understanding history. That passion led him to stage a talk about the history of white supremacy in America, examining the cause and effect of racist policies and behaviours. Captured on camera with supporting interviews and archival footage, this captivating lecture discusses the duality of American prosperity and American wickedness with plainspoken clarity.
Indeed, far from a polemic against the white majority, Robinson delivers a nuanced talk that examines and acknowledges the freedom and opportunities afforded by American society, while explaining the nation’s corrupt foundation and the residual unconscious biases that still linger within us all. By using his own upbringing as an example, he brilliantly shows how the Black population needed to rely on the kindness of allies to succeed, describing his subsequent IVY league success as a function of luck and the bravery of his parents to overcome the segregationist obstacles placed in front of them.
As the film intermittently diverges to the archival footage and interviews, one can’t help but agree that he benefitted from unusually fortunate circumstances. From the assassination from Martin Luther King, to the Tulsa massacre, to the post-Civil War lynching epidemic, there’s no denying that there is no level playing field for Black people to achieve the storied American Dream. While the historical accounts are hardly a revelation, Robinson contextualizes them in engaging ways.
Though the film’s title suggests an epic investigation into American history, the resulting film is a modest endeavour, for better or worse. In a time when filmmakers like Raoul Peck and Ava DuVernay have released more incisive and cinematically inventive works for film and TV, the simplicity of the film’s approach is glaring. You won’t find mention of the earlier roots of colonialism nor will you see any flashy directorial flourishes to reframe the familiar images.
But the somewhat casual nature of Robinson’s personal touch is also uniquely effective, as he meets with people in their homes and on the streets, rather than stuffy meeting rooms or dedicated shooting locations. Most incredibly, he speaks with a survivor of the Tulsa massacre, as well as a Confederate apologist who wilfully denies the role of slavery in the Southern cause. In the case of the latter, Robinson’s calm but pointed questioning effectively serves as model for engaging in such discussions.
Ultimately, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America may not be the most groundbreaking work of filmmaking or journalism. However, Jeffrey Robinson’s wisdom and passion shines through with the lasting impact of a great teacher. It offers a galvanizing refresher course for those who are already aware of the ongoing struggle, while also providing a captivating and educational entry point for those who need to be enlightened. As the film explicitly demonstrates, evidence of that dark past is still here with us, through Confederate monuments and memorials to Black people who continue to be unjustly slain. As the documentary clearly proves, there’s still much work to be done for America to heal the mental and physical wounds of white supremacy.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.