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Arts & Culture

'Who We Are' documentary examines racism in America

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Sony Pictures Classics
ACLU's Jeffrey Robinson is shown in this undated still. He uses his 2018 town hall meeting as the foundation for the new documentary "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America."

"Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America" arrives this weekend at San Diego art house cinemas just in time for Black History Month.

In "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America," lawyer and ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jeffrey Robinson recalls that as a child in 1968 he was filled with hope about racial justice.

"There was the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act," Robinson says in the film. "We were winning on buses and at lunch counters. We were seemingly to me at a tipping point where we were either going to roll forward with this incredible momentum on racial justice or we could roll back."

Once again the nation is at a tipping point and once again, Robinson says. The nation is in danger of rolling back.

'Who We Are' documentary explores racism in America

The documentary intercuts footage of Robinson’s 2018 town hall meeting in New York with historical footage, interviews and his own story of growing up Black in America.

The film argues that white supremacy is deeply entrenched in American culture and that’s led to a history of racial inequities and oppression.

"Who We Are" reminds viewers of events they are likely familiar with such as Emmett Till’s brutal murder in Mississippi but also history that should be known better regarding our founding fathers, Reconstruction and the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The film quotes from George Orwell's novel "1984:" "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

The point being that if important events and information about American history are not taught then it becomes impossible to learn from it and impossible to view our current place in history with any sense of context.

In a sense, the film feels like it has been made for white audiences, which is not a criticism. After all it seems white audiences are the ones most in need of hearing many of the things Robinson addresses.

Robinson opens by asking if anyone in the audience has even owned a slave and then assures the audience that "slavery is not our fault, we didn't do it, we didn't cause it" so that the tone is not an accusatory one trying to assign guilt.

But then he adds, "but it is our shared history." He wants audiences to open their eyes to is some of that history that has often been hidden from view.

He also makes sure to define how he sees the term "white privilege" as not taking away from any struggles or accomplishments whites have had but as a way of pointing out that the playing field has not been level.

Robinson's tone throughout is calm and reasoned, even when speaking with a white Southerner holding a Confederate flag and insisting the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

There is a hint of exasperation and he is definitely driven by passion, but he maintains a very civil tone for the discourse he presents. It is a tone that may help to not alienate the types of people that he really needs to reach in order to make sure that this time America moves forward and does not roll back.

Robinson cites the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, which found our nation was “moving toward two societies, one Black, one white — separate and unequal." That warning went unheeded more than 50 years ago. Now Robinson asks audiences, what are you going to do to make sure we don’t roll back again?

"Who We Are: A Chronicle of Race in America" opens this weekend at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas, Angelika Film Center at Carmel Mountain, AMC La Jolla, AMC Chula Vista, AMC Mission Valley and Edwards San Marcos.