This documentary is no easy watch, but Who We Are does prove to be a stirring and necessary one.
One of the most gut-wrenching moments of the documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America comes during interactions between ACLU deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson and Josephine Bolling, daughter of Elmore Bolling, a man who was killed as part of a racial hate crime. During their interactions, she takes Robinson to the ditch where she found her father’s corpse years earlier. Rather than just hearing about these horrors, the camera bears witness to the land where a human being was discarded like he was nothing.
Horrors of the past become noticably tangible in this scene, especially with the sight of cars whizzing down a road next to this spot. The world keeps moving, vehicles keep speeding down the road, but justice eludes the man who was left to rot in this ditch. Elmore Bolling’s death cannot be forgotten, nor that his murder was not an anomaly in the history of America.
The societally ingrained racism that informed this demise is the focus of a lecture given by Robinson, which is the centerpiece of Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. Given to a packed crowd on Juneteenth 2018, directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler make this speaking engagement the lynchpin of the feature. There’s certainly enough material covered in this event to sustain an entire documentary. Robinson takes people through everything from vivid demonstrations of unconscious bias to horrifying truths about American history he’s uncovered through extensive research.
However, Robinson’s time on this stage isn’t the sole focus of their camera. Throughout the runtime, the viewer is taken to segments where Robinson interviews people from all across America. Chief among those he talks to are individuals with connections to racial atrocities, including one of the few remaining survivors of the Tulsa Massacre. These portions of Who We Are give moviegoers a human face to the topics that rest of the film talks about through visual aids and historical anecdotes.
Juggling between the speaking engagement sequences and interview portions proves to be the biggest challenge for Who We Are. The latter elements sometimes struggle as a result of Robinson’s skills as an orator. He’s incredibly vivid in his descriptions of how the oppression of Black people is baked into the fabric of America as a country. Unfortunately, this means that a filmed encounter with a Confederate flag-welding south California resident, for example, just feels like it’s rehashing concepts better conveyed when Robinson is just alone on a stage.
On the other hand, many of these digressions do work properly in providing accentuations rather than distractions or regurgitations of Robinson’s public speaking material. An interview with a woman who organized a successful protest to remove a Confederate statue, for instance, does great work in communicating the cost of standing up against injustice. The sight of seeing this ode to Black oppressive removed doesn’t inspire cheers in the interview subject. Instead, she’s despondent that so many people had to sacrifice so much just to get one out of hundreds of remaining Confederate statues in America.
These comments embody the cognizance of brutal reality that makes Who We Are so engaging as a documentary. Robinson never hesitates to emphasize that government and federally mandated forces are behind racial strife in America, including housing practices like redlining that discriminate against Black people. This man isn’t afraid to confront structural problems in America, which lends a vivid sense of urgency to Robinson’s words.
Connected to this is a welcome detail in how Robinson subtly emphasizes throughout how we’re all culpable in the horrors of systemic racism. Rather than refer to a constant vaguely defined boogeyman in the form of a “them”, Robinson often talks about “us” and “we” concerning racially harmful practices and concepts. This isn’t meant to deflect the existence of these hardships back onto marginalized communities. Instead, this ensures that viewers can’t walk away thinking this speech is about other people and not themselves. To live in America is to be complicit in these horrors, hence the title of Who We Are.
This man isn’t afraid to confront structural problems in America, which lends a visual sense of urgency to Robinson’s words.
This approach means that Robinson’s speech travels all across the terrain of America as often he navigates several different decades of its history. Slave ships built in the Northern parts of the country get as much time in the spotlight as the pro-slavery phrases used by Southern states to justify their secession from the United States of America. This expansive approach gets to the heart of how rampant anti-Black sentiment is in this country, while Robinson’s gift for public speaking ensures that his ambitions for this project do not escape his grasp.
Granted, the presentation of this speaking engagement, in terms of what camera angles and editing techniques, isn’t as imaginative or thoughtful as Robinson’s words. But these elements are never a hindrance to the important material that Who We Are is delving into. Meanwhile, the visual restraint exhibited by Emily and Sarah Kunstler works better in the segments outside of the speaking engagement. Here, the lack of flashy camerawork ensures that the focus remains on the people Robinson is talking to, which allows their words to register as extra impactful.
As the feature’s central subject underscores several times when’s speaking onstage, the past and present of America are deeply intertwined with intolerance. They’re so intertwined that there is no hope for the countries future if we’re not willing to look at the events that have shaped it. Who We Are isn’t all that radical in its filmmaking, but it is appropriately impactful in how much information and urgency it crams into a two-hour runtime. It deftly achieves all of that while never forgetting the humanity of the people impacted by the racism of America.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is now playing in limited release in theaters.