Built around a riveting presentation by lawyer Jeffrey Robinson, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America re-examines the story we thought we knew from the perspective of racial oppression. As a former ACLU Deputy Legal Director, Robinson has meticulously studied the intricacies of American history and draws a direct line from slavery to today’s post-racial myth. Using interviews, surprising reveals and personal stories, Robinson examines the echoes of white supremacy and the challenges that lie ahead in order to defeat it.
Directed by the Kunstler Sisters, Who We Are is a thorough and systematic analysis of the history of American racism. Taking the form of a TED talk, Robinson unravels the complexities of the US with precision, leaning into the specificities of law and unspoken truths that many may find surprising. While the film balances out the ‘talking head’-feel to the film with visitations to sites of past traumas, its Robinson’s in-depth dissection of history that resonates most. Thoroughly breaking down legal loopholes and events from not-so-long-ago, Robinson reveals the scars left on a nation by its Founding Fathers.
And the scars run shockingly deep.
Whereas much of the America’s racist past may seem like it has been mined, Robinson proves that we have only begun to scratch the surface. From the sneaky subsections included within the Constitution to the subtle ways that segregation was allowed to exist within the law, Who We Are proves that racial division is deeply embedded within the foundation of the country. Using constant legal trickery, white America has historically worked towards maintaining a power imbalance amongst its population in their favour. Legalization of lynchings, brutal murders and other acts of cruelty have all been allowed to exist simply because the cultural system has skewed so heavily in one direction. In fact, Who We Are even points out that the building of freeways was meant to cover up the damage caused by murderous rampages. (‘The law picked a side’, Robinson moans.)
And that may be one of the most terrifying aspects of the film.
Throughout the film, Robinson highlights the fact that the darkness of the past still goes ignored. Despite the obvious lingering effects of segregation within American society, many refuse to address these issues. (For instance, some states fight to keep conversations about systemic racism out of the schools, choosing to believe that these problems no longer exist.) Although he argues that this generation are not to blame for issues such as slavery, so too does he challenge them to examine the ways of the past so they can chart a new future. In other words, while he believes that racism is not broadly encouraged today, we still struggle to deal with the underlying issues in order to enact change. In this way, there’s a reason that the film is entitled, Who We Are. This is not a film that wants to grapple with a problem in Almighty America. Instead, it is meant to point out that racism is so firmly entrenched in American history that it also comprises a piece of its identity.
Even so, it’s worth noting that Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America does end on a note of hope. As Robinson invites the viewer to accept the challenges ahead, so too does he intend to create conversations about true equity for the next generation. However, that same future is also left very much in question. Fully aware that racial injustice exists on a subconscious level in US culture, Robinson recognizes the challenges that lie ahead.
After all, it’s always difficult to change who you are.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is available in theatres on Friday, February 4th, 2022.