Home Arts ‘Who We Are’ Corrects the Record During Black History Month

‘Who We Are’ Corrects the Record During Black History Month

A still from “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Courtesy photo.
It’s painfully ironic that during this Black History Month, state legislatures all across the country are trying to limit how that history can be taught. These efforts to control the narrative of Black history are not new. Half-truths, repressed atrocities, and an overriding mythology of altruism and magnanimity have marred the American historical imagination since the country’s founding. The Who We Are Project seeks to correct the record in its new documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” opening at the Savoy Theater Friday, Feb. 25.

Jeffrey Robinson, an ACLU attorney and CEO and founder of The Who We Are Project, has been crisscrossing the country for years offering in-depth lectures on the historical and legal antecedents that have gotten us to where we are. The film is directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler — daughters of famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler, the legal defender in the “Chicago 7” trial of 1969. “Who We Are” captures Robinson’s TED Talk-style presentation at New York City’s Town Hall Theater, on Juneteenth, 2018, three years prior to that date being designated a federal holiday.

Slideshows offer much of the documented evidence during Robinson’s lecture; the Kunstlers interweave his presentation with archival footage, walking tours of relevant historic sites, and on-the-ground interviews conducted by Robinson himself. Overall, they create a dynamic, informative interplay of past and present, knowledge and heart.

Tracing a course from the origins of the slave trade in colonial New York to the embattled Confederate monuments of today, Robinson recognizes that we are at a “tipping point” in American race relations not dissimilar to the momentous civil rights movement of the 1960s and the social and political turmoil that it occasioned. He also dips into his own history to offer a first-hand account of the legal and financial policies that have shaped America’s present-day racial inequities, such as school segregation and redlining.

“Who We Are” is primed to join the ranks of breakthrough Black history documentaries along the lines of Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” both of which not only enjoyed commercial and critical success, but became mainstays in high-school classes across the nation. Robinson expands the conversation on Black history and drives more information to the people who need it most. Unfortunately, as state legislatures simultaneously aim to narrow that conversation in public school settings, Robinson’s audience may be limited to those already willing to spend their time and money on hearing what he has to say — the audience he is least in need of reaching.

Travis Weedon is a programmer at the Savoy Theater and the festival director for White River Indie Films.