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New documentary uncovers the real history of ‘Racism in America’

Jeffery Robinson lectures at New York City’s Town Hall in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism.” Photo: Jesse Wakeman / Sony Pictures Classics

The vibrant lecture that inspired Sarah and Emily Kunstler’s documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” — opening in Bay Area theaters, Friday, Feb. 4 — grew out of a family tragedy when Jeffery Robinson and his wife took in his 13-year-old nephew, Matthew, after the boy’s mother died.

Becoming a parent to a Black youth made Robinson fearful of what the teen might face out in the world but also spurred the civil rights attorney to study the United States’ long history of racism.

“I was trained as a criminal defense lawyer, as a trial lawyer,” Robinson told The Chronicle during a recent visit to the Bay Area with the Kunstler sisters. “And one of the things I was trained to do is to take a complex set of facts and put it on a timeline just to see what it tells you. When I did that, it was just clear, an unbroken chain of events from 1619 to the present.”

That timeline became the basis for Robinson’s lecture, tracing the history of American racism and white supremacy from colonial days up through our present time. Then a deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, he started giving the talk in various venues, which brought him to the attention of the Kunstlers.

Emily Kunstler, co-director of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Photo: Sarah Kunstler / Sony Pictures Classics

The filmmaking duo are the daughters of civil rights lawyers, the late William Kunstler, famous for representing members of the Chicago 7 during their 1969 trial; and Margaret Ratner Kunstler, who has represented activists for half a century. An attorney herself, Sarah — who had previously partnered with Emily on the 2009 feature documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” — met Robinson when he spoke at a continuing legal education seminar at the Southern District of New York Federal Courthouse.

“I did not know who Jeffery was and I did not have high expectations,” Sarah Kunstler said. “I am very interested in racism and anti-racist work, and how it intersects with the criminal justice system, but lawyers can take any topic and make it boring. Then I heard Jeffery speak and he changed my life.

“He is dynamic, he’s compassionate, he’s brilliant,” she added. “After hearing him speak, I could not look at the world the same way. I came in to hear him speak, believing myself to be an anti-racist person who knew a lot about the history of racism in America. I came out of his talk realizing I knew very little.”

Sarah Kunstler, co-director of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Photo: Jesse Ferguson / Sony Pictures Classics

Sarah immediately pitched the documentary to Emily. In June 2017, they met with Robinson, who was flattered but found their idea for a film “outlandish.” The sisters won him over with the force of their proposal, making it clear that Robinson would be not just a subject of the film but also a partner in the process.

“As I got to know more, I started thinking, ‘Well, why not?’ ” Robinson said.

Robinson’s lecture forms the basis of “Who We Are.” The Kunstler sisters rented New York’s Town Hall, a historic 1,500-seat venue, to film the talk on Juneteenth 2018, which is interspersed throughout the documentary. The rest of the film incorporates Robinson’s own life story, starting with his youth growing up in segregated Memphis, along with a cross-country tour with stops of historical import, including the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S.C.; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; and the “Steps to Nowhere” monument outside of Tulsa, Okla., commemorating the remnants of Black Wall Street after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Jesse Wakeman films Jeffery Robinson (left), Faya Ora Rose Touré and Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Photo: Emily Kunstler / Sony Pictures Classics

As he travels, Robinson talks to a variety of people, from a 107-year-old survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre to defenders of Confederate monuments.

“The interviews were intense,” Robinson recalled. “The easiest was in New York City, where I was living part time when I was working at the ACLU. That was the woman who gave us the tour of the city and talked about New York’s connection to enslaving people. I felt I was learning so much, I was almost a student in that interview. The hardest interviews were in Memphis because those were more personal.”

“Who We Are” was shot before the summer of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and before right-wing talking heads began using the academic concept of “critical race theory” to attack the way the history of slavery and white supremacy is taught in elementary and high schools in 2021. Robinson and the filmmakers are mindful that their work is coming out at a moment when divisions in the United States are stark. Their intention is to add meaningfully to the discussion through the film, which is now part of Robinson’s Who We Are Project, a nonprofit formed to combat racism through education.

Jeffery Robinson lecturing at the Town Hall in New York in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Photo: Jesse Wakeman / Sony Pictures Classics

“We plan on having a major impact in schools, community groups, and corporate and government offices around America,” Robinson said. “If people think they are going to stop students from learning this history by having anti-CRT laws, they’re just crazy. … The game is on.”

Added Emily Kunstler, “Look where we’ve gotten ignoring this history, where we are so divided as a country. How can knowing our history be any worse? It’s only going to make things better. It’s going to be hard facing these truths. But we should embrace that difficulty because it’s worth it, because the other side of this has got to be better than what we have now.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (PG-13) opens in select Bay Area theaters starting Friday, Feb. 4.



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