To call Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America a riveting documentary feels almost too ordinary of a way to describe this remarkable effort by sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler, co-founders of Off Center Media, centered around the extraordinary Jeffrey Robinson's talk on the U.S. history of anti-Black racism that weaves together compelling interviews and archival footage into a two-hour history lesson that informs, engages, enrages, and challenges.
Screening during the 30th anniversary Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis, Who We Are has already picked up the Audience Award in Documentary Spotlight at SXSW and the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary at Seattle International Film Festival. It's a film that continues the Kunstlers long-standing history of exposing injustice through the media and they've found the perfect person to tell the story in the quietly stunning Jeffrey Robinson.
Robinson is a fiercely engaging figure. Simultaneously charismatic and matter-of-fact, Robinson makes it clear that the enemy is us in Who We Are and it's difficult to fathom anyone not being genuinely moved and called to action by this relentlessly compassionate and unflinching presentation meets documentary.
The Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality for the American Civil Liberties Union, Robinson kicks us off with gut punches amidst the imagery of Memphis's Lorraine Motel where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and where that familiar story feels renewed with the freshness of the imagery and Robinson's own words. He takes us through a myriad of topics from Nixon's "War on Drugs" that led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans to the increasingly known Tulsa Massacre of 1921 to surprisingly candid and remarkable conversations that he himself had with Confederate flag supporters. Robinson comes off as a well-reasoned and well-informed man and it's that even-keeled, thoughtful presentation that seemingly opens the door to difficult conversations and this deeply impactful presentation.
Who We Are is, at least for the most part, presented in a presentation format with Robinson himself in front of a live audience accompanied by videos, interviews, archival footage, and imagery of his own personal journey woven into the fabric of the film. Who We Are does, indeed, weave elements of Robinson's own story into the film including emotionally resonant footage of his return to the home where he largely grew up that he ended up in largely because his parents learned how to twist the system just a nudge to ensure their children a safe home in a safe neighborhood with good schools.
Speaking the words “Slavery is not our responsibility, but it is our shared history," Robinson acknowledges that those gathered with him this day are not to blame for slavery but it is a shared history that we are all responsible to end in all its forms and ensure it is not repeated.
In case you're wondering, yes, slavery most certainly still exists. It just looks different these days.
At just shy of two hours, Who We Are occasionally slows down enough that we look at our watches, or smart phones, and realize that we've been attending to this longer than usual lecture yet we're better informed, completely engaged, and more than a little inspired. I shed tears during Who We Are, yet I also became angered by the images before me and as the closing credits scrolled by I found myself wanting to use my own platforms with an even stronger commitment.
Who We Are deals early on with a thought that will likely pop into everyone's mind - how did two white sisters come to direct this remarkable truth-telling on racism in America? The answers are simple, really, but it was wise to deal with it early so we could relax and listen to Robinson's words.
The different elements that comprise Who We Are are woven into its tapestry seamlessly, unforgettable images serving as companion to Robinson's precise and at times difficult to hear words. Only occasionally and for fleeting moments feeling like a "lecture," Who We Are is often like that college class we think we don't need but that ends up being one of our favorite classes ever.
It's not surprising that Who We Are is proving to be both critically acclaimed and loved by audiences. Emily and Sarah Kunstler have crafted a necessary film centered around Robinson's delivery that is as emotionally moving as it is convincing and convicting. He makes it clear that this is truth whether we choose to believe it or not.
Easily one of the best feature docs to screen at the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is an unforgettable moviegoing experience that deserves to be seen far and wide.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic