Once more, for those in the back: The United States is a racist country. As lawyer Jeffrey Robinson, the deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice & Equality at the ACLU, clearly and eloquently reminds viewers in Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler’s must-see documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, the U.S. was founded by White men who enslaved Black people, and that legacy has had an impact on everything that has come since.
That doesn’t mean that all White people are inherently evil or that the United States hasn’t also accomplished amazing things, Robinson explains during his powerful lecture filmed on June 19, 2018 (Juneteenth), which the Kunstler sisters effectively intercut with historical footage and segments in which Robinson interacts with others and explores his own experiences growing up as a Black man in America. But it does mean that until White Americans acknowledge the full, often painful truth of the country’s past and the privilege they merit simply for being born in White bodies, real progress — and healing — are impossible.
Robinson doesn’t pull any punches as he traces the path of U.S. racism from the early colonial days through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and all the way up to Black Lives Matter movement. He lays out how racism was baked into the Constitution and has been reinforced ever since through political maneuvering both subtle and infuriatingly blatant. If the stories, images, and statistics he shares about lynchings, the Tulsa massacre, red-lining, drug criminalization, and police killings don’t make you angry, then you have some serious soul searching to do.
That said, for many viewers, these stories — including Robinson’s moving personal anecdotes about facing racism while playing on an integrated basketball team or when his parents tried to buy a house in a White neighborhood — may prompt anger but not surprise. Because although many Americans, most of them White, are quick to exclaim “but that’s not who we are!” when they hear about the kinds of things Robinson talks about, his point is that, yes, that is exactly Who We Are. And that needs to change now. — Betsy Bozdech
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Sherin Nicole Donald Glover sang, “This is America.” Rage Against the Machine roared, “Some of those that work forces, Are the same that burn crosses.” Later, when the great Sidney Poitier wrote about it, he called it a “destroy-the-world rage—and its flame burns because the world is so unjust.” On Juneteenth in 2018, Jeffery Robinson took centerstage to proclaim: This is Who We Are. This is American Racism (capital R, fully trademarked) and it is more bloody than bitter—an inherited wound, suppurating and unjust, contagious and contemptible. A documentary directed by Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler, starring and written by Robinson, Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America vivisects the great American disease. Through interviews, historical imagery, and oration: Robinson is a “rebel without a pause.” He demands that you forget your fragile feelings because, above all else, the truth matters; and the reason for proclaiming your life is important is to preserve it when it is perpetually endangered. America has its foot on the necks of Black People and it applies a steady, crushing pressure. The truth becomes Robinson’s mic drop, because a history denied is one that rears up to bite again, because this is America and its Who We Are.
Leslie Combemale Timing being what it is, I watched Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America on January 6th, a day on which I was also arguing with a colleague who believed the recent insurrection wasn’t a big deal. Anyone who believes there’s no connection between what’s happening now in American politics and the history of racism in this country is either ignorant or chooses to have cultural amnesia. By highlighting Jeffrey Robinson’s work both onstage in a 2016 presentation and when he is traveling across country to open people’s eyes about the subject, directors Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler have created a film that hopefully won’t just be seen by people who already know there’s a problem, but by people who oppose critical race theory, or believe in an America that we’ve all been taught about, but one that actually ignores or erases the truth of who we are. It’s a film that not only enlightens, but can help change the course of the dangerous direction in which our country is rapidly heading.
Loren King This documentary will and should make you angry and break your heart. It’s based on the work of lawyer and gifted communicator Jeffery Robinson who meticulously and thoughtfully guides us through the little-known history of this country’s anti-Black racism and white supremacy. Like Ava DuVernay’s essential documentary 13th, Robinson’s insightful, methodical presentation lays out how white supremacy was institutionalized and codified from the very founding of this country to the present moment. Robinson’s illuminating lecture provides the film’s structure but directors Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, who made William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe about their father’s career as a civil rights lawyer and fighter for racial justice, expand the story. Robinson goes on the road, traveling from South Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma; to Selma, Alabama and back to his native Memphis, Tennessee. Through interviews and archival footage, he creates a gut-wrenching and eye-opening journey through his own and our collective past as he exposes truths, debunks myths and reclaims the narrative of “who we are.”
Marilyn Ferdinand The murder of George Floyd shocked the nation in a way that many white Americans had never experienced, and that shock sent many well-intentioned, but naïve people searching for answers. Those answers can be found in the history of the United States, and Jeffrey Robinson, an attorney who is the director of the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality, makes it his mission to tell that history early and often. He is the “host” of Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s clear-eyed documentary, Who We Are, as he narrates the real story of this country to an audience in a lecture hall and through excursions through the centuries-old white terrorism perpetrated against Black Americans in the places where they happened—from Bloody Lowndes County, Alabama, to the empty spaces where Tulsa’s Black Wall Street stood before it was firebombed out of existence by white supremacists who then carried out the massacre of roughly 4,000 of its Black residents. Robinson is clearly angry at what has happened to Black America through the centuries, and probably just as angry that white Americans retreat so often into their mythology of American exceptionalism and the lies surrounding slavery and racism. White backlash against the momentary clarity brought on by George Floyd’s lynching is back with a vengeance, but thanks to Robinson and this film, we at least have some idea of the inherent racism we’re up against.
Nell Minow: Who We Are tells another inconvenient truth, and like Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about climate change denial, this film provides calm, documented, impossible to ignore “rest of the story” information about what is left out of the history we learn in schools. It is especially timely as school curricula are becoming even more politicized. Jeffrey Robinson knows that only the truth can allow us to move forward and this sobering film should be required viewing by students, parents, school boards and anyone who wants to be a part of a stronger America.
Pam Grady: A dozen years after Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler paid homage to their legendary activist lawyer father with their documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, the sisters turn their camera on another civil rights lawyer, Jeffery Robinson, a former deputy director of the ACLU and the founder and director of the Who We Are Project. Spun from the lectures on America’s long history of racism, which themselves sprung from Robinson’s research into the subject after he and his wife adopted his nephew, the documentary is no mere academic exercise. Cut between snippets of one of Robinson’s lectures before a rapt audience at New York’s Town Hall Theater, history unfolds along with Robinson’s own story as he visits key sites in the United States’ story. Racial injustice is something Robinson knows intimately: he grew up in segregated Memphis and has vivid memories of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination when Robinson was still in middle school. Add to that the country’s history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the 1912 Tulsa massacre, and more, and a portrait emerges of racial injustice with which America has yet to fully reckon. Who We Are, indeed, is a film that is as riveting as it is vital.
Susan Wloszczyna: In the documentary Who We Are, Black attorney Jeffrey Robinson, who has been a lawyer for 40 years, performs as the film’s screenwriter, presenter and star as he delivers a lecture on about how our country continues to push aside our increasing divisions when it comes to our ingrained culture that still embraces white supremacy and institutionalized racism in our society. Here is a man, we are told, who is about to argue his most important case. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin AWFJ’s first Movie of the Week selection for 2022 is essential viewing: the revelatory Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, with author and activist Jeffrey Robinson taking center stage with a crushing presentation about the long and egregious systemic racism and heinous racist-motivated events — all too often allowed to slip by without necessary consideration, retribution and/or reconciliation — that have lead us to this critical moment in our nation’s evolution. This is the history that should be taught in American schools. Look. listen and learn. Feel heartbroken and angry — and make a commitment to the rectification of the evil elements in our nation’s political, social and economic system.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler is an eye-opening and thought-provoking documentary about ACLU attorney and activist Jeffery Robinson’s TED Talk-like presentation regarding the history of institutional racism, from slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights in America. Robinson’s survey lecture isn’t going to teach anything astonishingly new to someone well-versed in the broad strokes of systemic racism, but the connections he makes (often to his own life and upbringing as one of the only Black children in his Memphis neighborhood and school), the ways he illustrates his points about racism being woven into laws, and his interviews with various activists and loved ones of victims of racially motivated killings, are all powerful. The Kunstler sisters (whose father defended the Chicago Seven and whose mother is a prominent human rights attorney) have dedicated their filmmaking careers to exposing legal injustice, and this documentary does exactly that.
Liz Whittemore As if he were giving the closing argument of a lifetime, lawyer, author, and activist Jeffery Robinson seamlessly lays out how America is one of the most racist countries in the world. The pervasive culture of white supremacy began the instant the original colonizers from Europe arrived. Robinson explains the fundamental laws created and enforced by the first Americans and the generations who followed. Some of these laws made me gasp in horror. As Jeffrey Robinson runs down the articles in The Constitution, you will feel like you know nothing. Why had I never heard of much of this information before? Read full review.
Cate Marquis Everyone who finds the South and white Southern culture charming, needs to watch the eye-opening documentary Who We Are. Better yet, all Americans need to watch this documentary, a deep dive into the history of racism in America. That exploration is led by a Harvard-educated African American attorney, Jeffery Robinson, who thought he knew the history of his country until he uncovered some startling facts rarely taught in schools. Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, daughters of the famed Civil Rights lawyer William Kunstler, Who We Are gives an insightful then-and-now look at what has been called “America’s original sin,” the institution of slavery, and its lingering effects. Robinson is a charming, warm presence and an excellent speaker, but this is hard-hitting stuff, even though some of it is already familiar. Who We Are is, nonetheless, a riveting and essential lesson in the deep roots of white supremacy in this country, in how that history continues to influence the present, and how the re-writing of history to exclude hard truths can re-direct both the present and the future.
Title: Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America
Directors: Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Running Time: 117 minutes
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Robinson (Documentary)
Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin