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Thread: WHO WE ARE: A CHRONICLE OF RACISM IN AMERICA ( Emily, Sarah Kuntsler 2021)

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    Jul 2002
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    WHO WE ARE: A CHRONICLE OF RACISM IN AMERICA ( Emily, Sarah Kuntsler 2021)



    A well-honed and capacious "lecture" that's much more, a complex fabric of fact, lesson, and personal experience

    Emily and Sarah Kuntsler, the filmmaking daughters of the inescapable civil rights and Chicago Seven trial defense lawyer of the sixties, who previously made a warts-and-all documentary about their father's career, William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe (2019), have simply made a film out of a more than two-hour lecture about racism, slavery, and the treatment of African Americans in America by Jefferey Robinson. Robinson, raised in Memphis at the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, which he describes, is a graduate of Harvard Law School who in 2015 left a 34-year-career as a public defender in Seattle to become Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice & Equality at the ACLU. He is also a faculty member of the National Criminal Defense College, past President of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a winner of its William O. Douglas Award; he has lectured on trial skills all over the United States.

    And he gives this lecture. It is, you might say, a labor of love that weaves a history of white racism and slavery in America seamlessly with Robinson's own background growing up in Memphis, where, after developers bought up their neighborhood, his father struck a deal with them and his parents, so they could go to a good Catholic school, moved into a big house in a white neighborhood, with the help of a Jewish real estate agent (we meet her daughter-in-law Kathie Fox) and white friends who wound up buying the house and turning it over to them. And in this version of this lecture, filmed at Town Hall in New York on Junteenth, 2018, there are interpolations filmed by the sisters at various locations, mostly in the South.

    "Just a filmed lecture," you may say. But there is information included here that will surprise you even if you're well schooled in Black History, and the Kunstlers' special interpolated location film segments make the lecture seamlessly intimate and personal. There is an exchange between Jefferey and a Confederate-flag waving, white-bearded (white) demonstrator who argues slavery was fine because enslaved people were "like family." Since There is also an interview with the now 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of a handful of centenarian survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and with Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father was lynched in the 1940's for being too successful, and with the mother of Eric Garner, who looks on her son as a sacrificial lamb. Jeffery went with his younger brother to Catholic high school in the early years of integrated schools and played basketball. There's a film of him meeting with good white friend and teammate Robert "Opie" Orians, and they learn of racism on the part of other team coaches theirs shielded them from. Jefferey was a young teenager when M.L. King was assassinated in Memphis, and we visit the Lorraine Motel and see the big wreath over the spot where King was shot from across the street. This weaves in and out with analysis of things like the pro-slavery verse of the "Star Spangled Banner" and Lincoln's generous reparations for the property losses of D.C. slave-owners. There are many cases of white-on-black murder that show the line from early lynchings to today's court-forgiven police murders of young black men, with Emmett Till in between.

    Robinson describes and diagrams "tipping points" when America might have moved away from racism - and then the ball flipped back again: he believes one such moment was the killing of Dr. King, but he describes two other key ones. We know about the Edmund Pontis Bridge at Selma but this time we learn who Edmund Pontis was. The message is the depth of the racist bargain: that America's flourishing early economy, north and south, was unmistakably built upon the exploitation of enslaved people and the sanctioned rape and murder that went with it are woven into the fabric of contemporary out-of-control police forces across the country and the vastly expanded prison system, which began with Clinton's Draconian 1994 crime bill.

    This is a documentary that awakens a great wealth of powerful emotions and intense thoughts. An important film that's as emotional and personal as it is instructive. Jefferey Robinson is a remarkable man. Never flashy, never strident, he catches you off guard again and again. If there is a weakness here it's that there's too much, too understatedly interwoven; that Robinson has so much to say and it's so much second nature after a decade of honing this lecture that he seems to forget the need for a clearcut structure sometimes.

    Further note: the racism focused on here is restricted to the kind against African Americans, following from the importation of enslaved black people from Africa. Genocide against Native Americans is not dealt with, nor does Robinson mention government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

    To end with joy instead of tears the film winds up with the bonus Juneteenth performance of a rousing gospel song by the big mixed-race, non-binary Resistance Revival Chorus. You'll want to stay for the end of the credits this time, to hear them and be uplifted, for this is a film of hope and Robinson recognizes lots that's wonderful here too, beside the eternal racism.

    Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, 117 mins., debuted at SXSW Austin Mar. 17,l 2021, playing at eight other domestic festivals and Montreal (HotDocs). Limited US release (Sony Pictures Classics) from Jan. 14, 2022. Reviewed at home on a screener from Sony. Metacritic rating: 90%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-01-2022 at 11:59 AM.


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