Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in AmericaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/12/21 12:05:07
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL 2021: There's a segment early on in "Who We Are" when Jeffery Robinson tries to have a conversation with a man standing in front of a Confederate statue with a matching flag, and it goes about as well as it can: There's no profanity or violence, but also no visible movement. It's not exactly the film in miniature, but it does make one worry about how much two hours of even the most earnest, well- crafted talk on the subject can be.It's a talk Robinson has likely given a lot, and the film is built around a lecture on America's history of anti-Black racism given at New York City's Town Hall theater in 2018. That presentation is somewhere between skeleton and meat, as he visits notable sites from just down the street to Selma and Tulsa, both visiting his own history, talking to those keeping the memories of these incidents alive, and occasionally talking to survivors.
This is often grim material that sometimes actively seeks to overwhelm; no matter how much one has learned before now, there's probably some particular incident or document that Robinson mentions that a viewer may not have heard of. Robinson acknowledges that it's a lot, and that even he wasn't fully aware of the full extent of it until relatively recently. There are enough items he could list, even limiting the focus strictly to anti-Black racism as the film does, that it's impressive how well Robinson and directors Emily & Sarah Kunstler pick out pieces that do not always directly follow from the previous segment but form a sort of lattice, the laws and norms which enable intersecting in ever finer ways. The group can't talk about everything, but the parts they do show make one wonder just how anything gets through at times.
That Robinson can be such a charismatic host when having to confront all this both in his own life and as the Deputy Legal Director at the National ACLU is, honestly, beyond my understanding, but I'm grateful for it. He shows a natural ability to connect with an audience that also works well in a one-on-one setting, which I imagine must help in his day job, whether gathering what one needs to build a case or present it. It is, I imagine, a tricky face to present - optimistic would feel dishonest, but the film would be unwatchable if he didn't see a way past the oft-referenced tipping point, even if he does often shift into justified anger.
The Kunstler sisters do a fair job of pulling material together (both direct and produce, while Emily also edits), although it's not necessarily the sort of dynamically-presented documentary that can pull in people who normally only watch narrative features. There's more than a few mid-interview cuts to Robinson nodding along that made one wonder what else they could do to mix a sequence up a little, and bits where Robinson will seemingly come to a place in order to be overcome by emotion, which doesn't feel less than genuine but which also doesn't have the impact of a truly spontaneous reaction. The important thing that they do is balance the field trips with the lecture well, giving a viewer time to let the emotional appeals sink in while Robinson approaches the intellect and vice versa.This is the point where you wonder if folks like that pro-Confederate protester near the beginning will ever even see it - or, if they do, not have it just completely bounce off them because that worldview becomes a fundamental part of their identity, but I suspect that's not really the hope of the film or the lecture in draws from. The point is to make those who might be persuaded more certain, angry enough to act rather than just disagree. How effective that will be is anybody's guess, but it's well-enough put together to have a shot.
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