One of the messages documentarian Jeffery Robinson most wants to impart on his audience is that America can be multiple things at the same time. It can be the product of a “brilliant” constitution—that constitution can also be rooted in the institution of slavery. It can be prosperous and free thinking, but it can also be deeply flawed.
“America has demonstrated its greatness time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth,” Robinson says in the film “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”. “Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
In the documentary, Robinson takes the audience on a time-traveling journey from slavery to post-reconstruction, and from the Civil Rights movement of the mid-century to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. “Who We Are”, which is streaming on Netflix, follows a narrative thread laid out in Robinson’s 2018 talk to a live audience at the New York Town Hall theater. It intersperses footage of that talk with interviews between Robinson and figures who have emerged from modern struggles of racial equity; figures like Darren Martin, who was suspected of burglary while moving into his New York apartment; Tiffany Crutcher, whose brother, Terence, was killed by Oklahoma police despite being unarmed with his hands in the air; and Viola Fletcher, the last known survivor of the Tulsa Massacre.
“Who We Are” is the story of Americans’ shared history of slavery, the civil war to protect slavery, the economics of slavery and its persistence through today, and the lasting marks of enslavement embodied by such national landmarks as the Edmund Pettus bridge, named after a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Today, Robinson is a lawyer and the former deputy legal director of the ACLU. But, as he tells the New York audience, he grew up in the South, attended protests before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and was able to attend some of the most prestigious schools in the United States. Yet it wasn’t until late in his education that he began to learn things about his country’s history; things that weren’t taught in school. It got him thinking about what other people also didn’t know.
The film opens with a line of text that reads: “Jeffery Robinson has been a lawyer for 40 years. Tonight, he argues his most important case.”
“Who We Are” is replete with haunting imagery: an newspaper notice Andrew Jackson placed to have his runaway slave returned and a note that he would offer added reward for each lashing that slave received before being returned; the handprints enslaved people left in the bricks of still-standing buildings as they built America; a lynching tree in South Carolina; tiny shackles made to fit a toddler.
On Sept. 29, the WSBA will host a screening of “Who We Are” as well as a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Robinson, and Washington Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud.
“He was eager to attend,” said Snohomish County Office of Public Defense Director Jason Schwarz, who helped coordinate the event. “He’s a Seattleite and cares deeply about this community. This is just one of the ways he’s made time for our legal community; he’s also spoken to our judges, justices, law enforcement, and other local civic departments about “Who We Are” and ending racism in our community. Jeff will talk to anyone who is listening.”
The Council on Public Defense made the film selection, and the event was also coordinated with the WSBA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council.
“[T]he topic of the film applies broadly to what it means to be a lawyer and all forms of the practice of law,” said Sharon Sakamoto of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council.
By WSBA Staff