Directed by Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler
Jeffery Robinson’s powerful documentary, Who We Are – A Chronicle of Racism in America, should be shown in every school in this country. Perhaps, just maybe, it would help understand our racial problems.
When the movie started, my first response was “Am I going to be stuck in a two-hour TED Talk?” Robinson steps on the stage of NYC’s historic Town Hall Theater. He starts talking, with a slideshow behind him. But soon the movie goes outside, as he confronts men waving Confederate flags. He talks with them, and although they disagree extremely, the discussion is calm and ends with a handshake. About half the film is Robinson talking to a live audience. Luckily, he’s an excellent speaker with a good sense of humor.
Although Emily and Sarah Kunstler directed the film, this is really Robinson’s show. A former ACLU Deputy Legal Director, he makes his points with the polish of a top barrister and brilliant advocate. He takes us through African-American history, showing us statistics, quotes from the Constitution, and a newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave – written and posted by Andrew Jackson. Robinson shows a photo of happy white children playing out doors; then Robinson opens up the full photo, and we realize that the kids are enjoying a lynching.
Jackson wasn’t the only president Robinson attacks. Nixon couldn’t arrest people for being young black men (or long-haired white men), so he created the war on drugs. Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 Bill, which created the current mass incarceration situation we have. And, of course, there’s a quote from Donald Trump that’s so far off from actual history that it’s both laughable and terrifying. Robinson even explains why it’s okay to have a monument for George Washington but not for Robert E. Lee, even though both had slaves.
And yet, he never puts down White Americans as a group. He spends time with two white childhood friends. He explains how, when he was a child, a realter refused to sell a house to his parents. So a white friend bought the house and sold it to the Robinsons. But their first day there, his father had to sit in front of the house with a shotgun. He acknowledges that many white Americans also struggle.
When Robinson isn’t on stage, he’s interviewing people – and not just family and old friends. We visit a lynching tree, monuments that really should be torn down, and a road that covers the bodies of a massacre. We’re told about how, after slavery was outlawed in New York State, Wall St. still made a fortune from “The Peculiar Institution.”
And then there’s the problem of young black men and the police. Robinson interviews a young man who was arrested for entering his own apartment. Since the beginning of the nation, the main job of the police has been keeping black people in line.
This is the best documentary I’ve seen about American racism since Hoop Dreams.
Who We Are – A Chronicle of Racism in America opens Friday, February 4, at San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. A week later, the film will open at Oakland’s Elmwood, Sebastopol’s Rialto, Pleasant Hill’s Century 16 Downtown, Redwood City’s Century 20 Downtown, and San Jose’s AMC Saratoga 14.