Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America will make its U.S. theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York City on Friday, January 14th. The film is written by and features Jeffery Robinson, former Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU, and is directed by sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler. The documentary had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, where it won the Documentary Spotlight Audience Award.
Robinson has worked as a trial lawyer for over 40 years. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he was 11 years old when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in his town. Robinson believes that, before King’s murder, the United States was at a tipping point towards racial equality. He believes the moment was lost upon King’s death and questions where we as a nation have now ended up.
The film chronicles Robinson’s journey around the United States, examining the extensive history of white supremacy and discrimination, going back to the days of slavery all the way through to the present. Who We Are weaves together his personal story with historical and archival footage. Interviews with the family members of those lost to lynching and murder at the hands of the police go in-depth and work to capture the spirit of generations deeply affected by loss. Footage of Robinson’s historic New York City Town Hall performance on Juneteenth (June 19th) 2018 is a grounding force throughout the film. In it, he speaks to the audience directly and challenges them to question why so much of our country’s struggle with discrimination, violence and state-sanctioned brutality against Black people was forgotten, never taught in schools.
I spoke with Robinson and the Kunstler sisters on how their collaborative film emerged. We also discussed what it meant to produce it during the Black Lives Matter Movement and why they chose to include the specific moments they did.
Risa Sarachan: What led to this collaboration between the three of you?
Sarah Kunstler: In May of 2017, I went to a legal seminar called “Recognizing and Confronting Bias,” at which Jeffery Robinson was a featured speaker. To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect much from it. I thought I knew everything I needed to know on the subject, which looking back on it now, is a bit embarrassing. Emily and I were raised in a family that was committed to anti-racism. It was something that we talked about with our parents from a very young age. Hearing Jeff speak changed my life. There was so much I didn’t know – no one had ever shown me the invisible line of systematic anti-Black racism and white supremacy that threads through our entire history as a nation. It was impossible to look at the world, and my place in it, in the same way after that experience. I was too shy to approach Jeff after the seminar, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Emily and I started talking about what it might look like to film the best version of Jeff’s talk, to make something we could share with others. And we reached out to Jeff to ask him if it was something he might consider letting us work on with him.
Jeffery Robinson: I was very surprised when I heard from Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler. I had been doing a presentation on the history of anti-Black racism in America for a number of years, but I had no idea of making it into a film. When they got in touch with me, I knew about their family name, but I did not know them. I talked to criminal defense lawyers who knew Sarah. I saw the film they made about their father. And most importantly, I got to know them. They were in the same mindset – the history I was talking about had been stolen from all of us, and it is up to all of us – not just Black America, to recover and reckon with this history. I was convinced that they were committed to anti-racism, and that they were incredibly talented. We recently figured out that we met for the first time on June 20, 2017, at a Starbucks in downtown Manhattan, and 364 days later, on Juneteenth 2018, we were on stage at historic Town Hall Theater in New York City filming a version of the presentation with seven cameras.
Sarachan: Jeffery, what inspired you to dig into this comprehensive material? How do you think your work as a criminal defense lawyer informs your work in Who We Are?
Robinson: In 2011, deaths in my family resulted in my 13-year-old nephew, who was living in New York City, moving to Seattle to become my son. My wife and I did not have children, and a variety of fears and concerns about raising a Black teenager frightened me. I started reading different things looking for help, and in my search, I kept finding things about incidents and stories of anti-Black racism in our history that I had never heard before. With degrees from Marquette University and Harvard Law School, I have one of the best educations in America, but I had not heard this information before. And the more I found, the more I looked. My training as a criminal defense lawyer taught me that when confronted with a huge amount of information, creating a timeline of facts and events can often be helpful in understanding the information.
When I put the information into a timeline, it told a complete story. My initial focus was on how racism impacted the criminal legal system, and there were a multitude of examples that I knew from my years of practice as a criminal defense lawyer. The systemic racism in the criminal legal system was a part of the larger legacy of anti-Black racism in America. There were so many examples that most of my initial presentations were largely focused on the criminal legal system. As I read more, I saw these structures in a variety of aspects of our social and political life in America.
Sarachan: How was the collaborative decision made to also include some personal stories from Jeffery’s childhood?
Emily Kunstler: Sarah and I knew early on that Jeff’s story had to be part of the movie. Jeff is a storyteller, and he had told us such amazing tales about his childhood and upbringing that we were really hoping to incorporate into the film. Also, we knew an audience would ask, “Why Jeff? Who is this person, and why is he the person taking us on this journey?” We knew that including some of Jeff’s personal story was necessary to answer those questions.
Jeff was reluctant at first, and Sarah and I totally understood his reluctance. Sarah and I made a movie about our father, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, and had felt the same reluctance. I told Jeff what producers told us at the time that helped me – to give himself some distance and think of the person on the screen as a character in a film, not as Jeff Robinson the person. I don’t know if this helped, but we had all developed such trust in each other through the process of making this film that he was able to take a leap of faith.
Robinson: I was very clear that I did not want this film to be about me or any individual. I have seen work that is hampered by being tied too closely with one person or group of people. I also do not believe that my personal story is exceptional or especially noteworthy.
In the film, I say that my parents were unicorns in the way they figured out how to give their children the best chance at success possible. It was the trick of “trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.” Black parents all over America became unicorns to give their kids a chance at success, and the other stories we tell in the film seemed much more important than mine.[The decision to] include information about my family in the film was essentially one made on trust. Emily and Sarah told me – repeatedly – that including some parts of my personal upbringing would make the film better. My family’s experience with school desegregation and neighborhood integration were not special, but they did relate to the story we were trying to tell. I think the film is better because of the inclusion of some facts about my family. I am grateful that Emily and Sarah convinced me that it was the right thing to do.
Sarachan: Emily and Sarah, there is a vast amount of historical material, but did you decide what to include and how to create a story with it all?
Emily Kunstler: The backbone for the film was Jeff’s presentation, which he had been crafting for over eight years at the time, so that was our initial guide. As an editor, it was such a privilege to be able to work with Jeff’s incredible presentation as a starting off point, but it was also a huge responsibility. I wanted to do the presentation justice, to build on it in a way that enhanced and elevated it, without gutting it or harming it in any way.
The presentation we recorded for the film, on Juneteenth 2018, at Town Hall, was three hours long. The finished film came in just under two hours, and we added a lot of material outside of the presentation, so hard choices had to be made. Jeff is a trial lawyer, and in this film, he is making an argument, so we had to be careful. We knew we couldn’t remove too much. We needed to let Jeff make a strong case. Sarah would sit with me while I edited, and it was a process of trial and error. Sometimes we’d remove too much and have to add some back in and other times, we’d need to trim more. Ultimately, the goal was to boil down the presentation to its essential elements without losing any of its power.
Sarah Kunstler: We always knew that we were going to have to take the viewer outside of Town Hall. We traveled with Jeff as he spoke to audiences across the country, and everywhere we went, we met with keepers of history and changemakers whose stories echo the arguments that Jeff makes on stage. We are conscious of the fact that the sharing of trauma is itself traumatic, and are so grateful to them for sharing their stories with us. Emily hates when I say this, but I am continually in awe of her talent as an editor. Emily sifted through the history in Jeff’s presentation, Jeff’s personal story, and the stories we captured as we traveled and found the heart of the film. I feel very lucky that she is my sister and creative partner.
Sarachan: I know Who We Are has already won at SXSW and received critical acclaim. What kind of feedback have you received from audiences?
Robinson: The feedback has been mostly positive. People have expressed amazement at what they were never taught, anger at the events in our history, and a desire to see change going forward. I am sure the film will anger some and will be critiqued by many. The main purpose of the film is to inform folks and ask them to think about who we really are as a country, and who we want to be going forward.
Sarah Kunstler: When our film premiered at SXSW, it was a virtual experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we didn’t really get a sense of the audience’s experience. This fall, we have been fortunate to get to see the film with audiences for the first time. There is something about seeing this film in a darkened room in a community of viewers that is really transformative. Jeff is on stage for a large part of the film, and when you see it in a theater, there is a real intimacy to the experience, like he is speaking directly to the audience. There’s something incredibly generous about Jeff’s presentation. He doesn’t cast blame. He invites viewers of all races into reclaiming a history that has been stolen from all of us and asks us to join together to move towards a different future. Seeing this film with an audience gives me hope that this different future is possible.
Sarachan: Emily and Sarah, I know your father, William Kunstler, was a civil rights activist and defense attorney of the Chicago Seven. What lessons did he and your mother teach you growing up about how to create change?
Sarah Kunstler: Our parents were civil rights activists and defense lawyers. The main thing they taught us was the importance of standing up for what we believe in. Our dad was relatively famous – at one point, he was called the most hated lawyer in America. But he lived most of his life before we were born and died when Emily and I were teenagers. Dad was obsessed with the story of David and Goliath and, in particular, Michelangelo’s statue of David. For him, this representation of David, with the rock in his hand and the sling over his shoulder, is deciding whether or not to take action. He can throw the rock at Goliath, or he can back down, quietly retreating into history. Dad taught us that it’s not just what you believe in that matters, but who you decide to be when those beliefs are tested.
Emily Kunstler: Growing up, Sarah and I didn’t know what paths our lives would take, but we knew it would be in the service of racial justice. I went to film school, and Sarah went to law school, and together, for the past 22 years, we have been making films about racism and injustice in the criminal legal system. Most of our films are short films made for a particular case, campaigns for justice, or clemency petitions. As we learned from our parents, in this work, there are few victories, and even victories can be temporary. So the satisfaction has to come from the work itself. Each genuine connection made, each individual given voice, each person reached or even changed, motivates us to continue on this journey.
Sarachan: What, if anything, during the process of creating this documentary surprised you?
Emily Kunstler: I think what surprised Sarah and me the most was how much of this is hiding in plain sight. From the fingerprints and handprints of enslaved laborers on the bricks that built Charleston, South Carolina, to the foundations of the homes that were never rebuilt after the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, to the words of our Constitution. This history has always been with us – we just have to know where to look.
Sarachan: What was your experience of filming this during the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Robinson: It was very difficult for me because I felt a desperate need to get the film out as soon as possible. Each time an incident of anti-Black racism would go viral, I would feel an intense need to finish the film and get it into the world. I had no illusion that racism would be solved simply by people watching the film, but I think the film can cause a spark in a huge number of people, making them stop and think about how we got to such a divided America and what we need going forward to reverse that trend.
Emily Kunstler: Because of the pandemic, we had mostly finished filming when the protests following George Floyd’s murder erupted across the country. But the sense of urgency we all felt in getting this film out there was certainly magnified by the movement. Sarah and I were editing the film over the summer of 2020, when outrage and grief were spilling into city streets, and we definitely felt pressure and responsibility to get this film out there to help contribute to this national dialog in some way. This was hard because documentaries are written in the editing room and take time to mold and craft. We would talk to Jeff frequently during this period and his enthusiasm and energy fueled us through the process.
Sarachan: Will there be future collaborations between the three of you?
Emily Kunstler: We formed unbreakable bonds during the past four years of working together. We share similar goals for change, and we plan to collaborate again to help move the needle forward. I feel so grateful for the relationships we’ve developed with Jeff and the whole Who We Are team. Meeting Jeff and making this film changed the way I look at the world and there is no going back.
Sarah Kunstler: Yes, no question. We are working together right now – the film may be done, but the collaboration continues.
Robinson: Absolutely yes. The talent and commitment of Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are a gift to my work. We will work together on multiple projects going forward. I am excited to see what we will do in the coming years.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America opens January 14th at Film Forum.