“If you have ever owned a slave raise your hand.” Those are the first spoken words in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” and asking the question is Jeffery Robinson, a veteran attorney and the former deputy legal director of the ACLU.
Robinson’s provocative ice-breaker is the first indication that “Who We Are” is a different type of documentary, one that’s unafraid to get up close and personal, while also being informative and factual about one of our nation’s most explosive issues. It’s a delicate balance that is hard to manage, but “Who We Are” nails it.
In “Who We Are,” Robinson tackles anti-Black racism in this country, pointing to its omnipresence in our history and its lingering impact. Though largely styled as a TED Talk on race and racism, it packs a strong emotional punch. Robinson’s tone is both commanding and compassionate; it’s clear how personally invested he is in getting this truth out there, and that investment locks people in. His own shock at not learning about troubling aspects of our nation’s racial history until much later in life — despite being Marquette University and Harvard Law–educated — puts audiences to ease, even as he notes that the nation’s record of anti-Black racism and dismissal of white supremacy is anything but hidden from history.
While he’s a riveting lecturer, the film becomes even more compelling when Robinson, a person old enough to have participated in a demonstration led by MLK, takes the “show” portion of his presentation on the road, bringing many of the topics he addresses to life. The stops along the way include New York City, where Robinson exposes how slavery was once legal in our nation’s fabled “melting pot,” and his hometown of Memphis, where he presents community efforts to remove Confederate monuments and spotlights one of its leaders, Tami Sawyer.
Robinson’s conversations with Josephine Bolling McCall — daughter of Elmore Bolling, who was murdered by white men in Lowndes County, Alabama, because he dared to be successful — is a haunting reminder of the lynchings and hate crimes of the past. Meanwhile, interviews with Gwen Carr (Eric Garner’s mother) in New York City and Dr. Tiffany Crutcher (twin sister of Terence Crutcher, the unarmed Black man killed by police officer Betty Jo Shelby, who was later acquitted) in Tulsa, remind us of how much farther there is to go.
Robinson has done his homework, producing documents as well as videos of historical figures speaking to the pervasive cancer of anti-Black racism and racial discrimination. A rare video features Dr. King addressing how the United States government historically enabled and assisted white men in generating their wealth and stability. Robinson also debunks Trump’s lies about Andrew Jackson, as well as many of the myths in our history pointing away from the intrinsic white supremacy that continues to spill over into our institutions.
There’s also discussion of some bright spots of history, like Reconstruction, where Black men became participants in government for the first time, and the Black community’s levels of wealth, education and involvement in public life accelerated at previously unheard-of rates. (Of course, Robinson also sadly notes how viciously this progress was disrupted.)
As bleak as the United States’ overall history may be, Robinson somehow never loses his optimism. Unlike the conservatives attacking the application of Critical Race Theory to education — which “Who We Are” shows as simply our nation’s real history — Robinson fundamentally believes the truth will set the country free or, at least, put us on a better path. That uplifting sensibility is what makes “Who We Are” most revelatory.
Bringing Robinson and his message to the big screen are filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler, the daughters of legendary attorney and civil-rights activist William Kunstler. With the prominence of the controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning “The 1619 Project,” “Who We Are” could not be timelier. Robinson is so meticulous in his examples and provides so much evidence to back them up that it’s hard to imagine skeptics not being swayed. Arriving at a time when conversations once reserved for academics have filtered into popular culture, “Who We Are” never plays like the product of some Hollywood bandwagon effort. Instead, its existence speaks to the power of cinema to reflect the times by sparking conversations and changing minds.
“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.