Staring in a mirror for a moment too long can be a frightening thing. The features warp, the nerves twitch, a line spotted that previously went unseen. A face is deeply personal, almost to a fault, as embedded familiarity numbs towards imperceptible. Recognition is on the surface, yet always too quick of a glace to become acquainted with the fine details of the flesh.
Jeffery Robinson, however, doesn’t fear the eye contact. And he is even less afraid to turn the mirror onto everyone else. As a lawyer and former ACLU deputy director, he has dedicated his life to righting wrongs — the pressing and the cataclysmic.
In the documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” directors Emily and Sarah Kuntsler capsulize Robinson’s words, consciously interspersed with interviews and history lessons excavated from suppression. For a decade, his time between legal cases was spent speaking to the faces of America, encouraging reflection on the history shared, and often unintentionally ignored, by every one of them. Now, those lessons have been brought to the big screen.
The documentary opens where it naturally only could — on a stage, on Juneteenth, with Robinson’s voice shining in an otherwise dark auditorium, gripping the viewer with a tenacity that can only signify a forthcoming change in perspective. Framed on two planes — the presentation in Town Hall theater in NYC and cinéma vérité footage of the traveling from interview to landmark and back again.
On stage, Robinson is a well-honed speaker, crafting cutting sentences that slice right through any fog clouding the narrative of anti-Black racism in the United States he aims to rectify. Bare of any flashy visuals, his years of practice have gilded his words in gold — luminary, enlightening and cogent. His hold on the crowd is palpable, illuminating through the camera lens as he seamlessly weaves the harrowing into something instantly understandable. Paired with a few endearing quips to the audience or slight singe in his tone when the topics frustrate, he’s compelling, silver-tongued.
As Robinson on the stage acts as the voice of the movie, the Robinson on the street kindly offers the emotional touchstone, whether it’s a sorrowed glisten to his eye as Gwen Carr (activist and mother to Eric Garner) describes the aftermath of her son’s murder, a gentle hand to his chest as museum operations manager Ista Clark recounts the horrors of American slavery, or a shared laugh with 107-year-old Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield.
Never unsympathetic, Robinson is almost jarringly present. His honest reactions to the horrors of America’s past reminds the audience to analyze their own reactions, to contemplate on how frighteningly possible it is to subconsciously ignore injustice once embedded into the inner workings of a society.
Clips and photos from the past few centuries of American history work hand in hand with Robinson’s lecture and the more intimate interviews. All three are in conversation, vis à vis, working to contextualize each other and expose a mystified past of the United States. In this sense, the film is not for the faint of heart: The Kunstlers are unafraid to play videos of police brutality against Black Americans in their entirety.
Robinson’s overarching point of repeatedly pushed back tipping points towards civil justice is blunt and precise as it draws unspoken visual comparisons between the lynching of Black people in the early 20th century and the continued lynching of Black people now in the 21st.
The documentary is devoid of fluff, and it is by no means easy to get through. Even with its steady pace and engrossing conversation, the topics are heavy and any attempts to distract from that would be a disservice to the message as a whole. The mirror is clear, unfiltered and jarring to take in. But no one can argue with a reflection, and it’s better to look now than go on in ignorance.
“Who We Are” is an unapologetic wake-up call for the willful ignorance possessed in United States history. Sharp one second and tender-hearted the next, Robinson embodies the power in holding knowledge and the even stronger weapon in sharing it.