Using film to tell a personal history of America and race

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Using film to tell a personal history of America and race
With “Who We Are,” the lecturer Jeffery Robinson and the directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler follow in the tradition of documentaries that excavate our past.

by Nicolas Rapold

NEW YORK, NY.- For over a decade, Jeffery Robinson has been telling an unvarnished history of the United States in an ever-evolving lecture presentation. His talks, now presented as part of his organization, The Who We Are Project, delve into how racism against Black people was bound up with the country’s legacy since its founding. The new documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” captures Robinson’s eye-opening account (filmed at Town Hall in New York City) and intersperses interviews with civil rights figures and others from his travels across the country.

The film, directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, joins a lineage of documentaries that excavate race and the histories of marginalized people in America, including Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th.”

“This is not ‘Eyes on the Prize,’” Robinson said of the new movie, which is available on major digital platforms. “But I think it is a call to us being something radically different going forward.”

Reviewing “Who We Are” for The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg made it a Critic’s Pick and wrote, “It’s a confrontational film, but never an alienating one.”

Robinson, a criminal defense lawyer by profession, was director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality in New York, and he remembers walking past the former Cotton Exchange on the way to work. I spoke with him and the Kunstlers (whose last feature, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” was about their father, a civil rights attorney). These are excerpts from our interview.

“Who We Are” partly aims to chart the role of white supremacy in U.S. history. How did you approach that?

JEFFERY ROBINSON: I say it as a rhetorical question in the film: “What if I said America was founded on white supremacy? Somebody might say, ‘Jeff, that’s really extreme.’” But when you read the words of the people that founded our country and see what they did, I think it’s an inescapable conclusion. Some people have said the Constitution was a compromise between those who wanted slavery and those who didn’t want slavery. This “compromise” protected the institution of slavery, gave the South extra congressional representatives and Electoral College votes to protect the institution of slavery, and made Black attempts to be free unconstitutional. It was unconstitutional for me to try and get away from my owner!

SARAH KUNSTLER: And they accomplished all of that without using the word slavery. We have a history of hiding what we mean as a country. When we enact laws preserving and maintaining white supremacy, we don’t actually say what it is that we’re doing.

ROBINSON: There is no way you can associate white supremacy with a law that says you cannot change the name of iconic monuments in the state of Alabama — until you understand that these are all monuments to slavery, essentially, and to people that enslaved people.

The film also uncovers the details of lived Black experience: for example, the fingerprints that enslaved builders left behind on walls they made.

EMILY KUNSTLER: The facts in the abstract don’t mean anything if you can’t connect them to actual human experience. Those fingerprints are one example of a monument to a history of lived experience of enslaved Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, and, in fact, all over this country that, despite the best efforts to erase them, persist. The same way the foundations for the houses in Tulsa, Oklahoma [site of the 1921 massacre], still exist where the homes were never rebuilt.

ROBINSON: There was a moment when we were talking with Mother Randle [a survivor of the Tulsa massacre] and she was saying, “There was a pile of bodies.” There was just a chill that went up and down my spine — this woman over 100 years old going back to that memory in her life.

Jeffery, how did it feel to share your and your family’s experiences of racism, like the school basketball game where the hosts didn’t want you to play?

ROBINSON: We went to Dr. Tiffany Crutcher and asked her to talk about her feelings about her brother being killed on live television, practically, by the Tulsa police [in 2016]. And it felt like, "All right, I should share something." Dick [a basketball coach who stuck up for Robinson] was 21 years old at the time this incident happened in Walls, Mississippi. This is just several years after civil rights workers got disappeared and murdered in Mississippi. Where he got the courage to handle that the way he did, I just don’t know. But it was clear that if I didn’t play, we were all leaving. And he wasn’t going to put that on me at 12 years old. I think he saw me as essentially his younger brother.

Could you talk about including the conversation about slavery with a man you encountered at a Confederate statue who represented Flags Across the South, the pro-Confederate flag group?

EMILY KUNSTLER: I felt like it encompassed the thesis of the film. I asked Jeff, “Do you think that that gentleman could be reached?” And Jeff said, “I don’t know if he can be reached, but I know that if nobody tries, he certainly won’t be.” There’s value in making the effort, there’s value in laying out the facts and continuing to do so. We can’t be frightened into silence by people who think differently, speak very loudly, and come out in force and wave Confederate flags.

ROBINSON: The conversation didn’t go the way he perhaps thought it was going to go in terms of me getting angry at him or something. There’s a little twitch in his face as we were leaving, and I think we at least made some wheels turn in his head.

How does the movie relate to the controversy around laws banning the teaching of certain American history?

ROBINSON: The first time we met in person to talk about this [movie] was June 20, 2017. No one was even talking about CRT [Critical Race Theory] back then. It would have been like, “What is that, a breakfast cereal or something?” So this was not done in response to those laws. But those laws coming up can tell you how afraid people are of the information that’s in this film.

This goes to the concept of “the minds of the rising generation.” All the way back in 1837, John C. Calhoun, one of the most virulent racists in American history, was saying that we can’t teach children in school about the abolition of slavery, because if we teach that, slavery is done for. The day before the [Trump] administration left office, they put out something called “The 1776 Report” that talked about a return to patriotic education, and they use the exact same quote that John C. Calhoun did: “the minds of the rising generation.”

SARAH KUNSTLER: Before there were anti-CRT laws, there were textbook wars. So there’s an unending battle of what and how much our children are taught in school about our nation’s history. One of the most compelling things about Jeff’s talk is that he goes back to primary sources. You don’t need to just learn it in school. You can seek it out for yourself.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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