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Jeffery Robinson at New York City’s Town Hall in Who We Are.Jesse Wakeman/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

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Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

Written by Jeffery Robinson

Featuring Jeffery Robinson, Tiffany Crutcher and Josephine Bolling McCall

Classification N/A; 118 minutes

Opens Feb. 4 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and Vancouver’s Vancity, with other cities throughout the spring

“Who controls the past controls the future.” This quote, from George Orwell’s 1984, is one that former American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson returns to often in the new documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler (daughters of civil rights activist and Chicago Seven lawyer William Kunstler), the film centres around Robinson and pairs footage of a lecture he gave in 2018 on the history of anti-black racism in the United States with archival footage, first-person testimonies and vulnerable glimpses of Robinson’s own experiences.

A constellation of intertwined narratives drives home Robinson’s main thesis in that lecture: that the past continues to reverberate throughout our present, regardless of whether or not we realize it.

Over the course of the film, Robinson guides us through moments in U.S. history, focusing largely on instances of radical change that carried with them the potential for social progress. From the Reconstruction Era to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson argues that there have been many points in history where the tipping point to social change has been reached, only to lose its momentum to the violently enduring nature of white supremacy.

Perhaps the most effective aspect of the film is the way that Robinson deftly links past and present – not in abstract, but in clear, connective continuations of anti-Black history.

From the formation of slave patrols in the 18th century to modern-day policing, or the fact that many present-day insurers and financial institutions once traded in the financing of enslaved human life, Robinson makes work of finding the anti-Black roots of contemporary America. While some hypocrisies are hiding in plain sight, such as Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner – a verse of which celebrates the murder of enslaved people – others are more insidious.

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Robinson talks to Faya Ora Rose Touré and Senator Hank Sanders on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.Emily Kunstler/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

Robinson’s interest as a researcher, lawyer and archivist lies not only in the witnessing of silenced histories or in uncovering the violence of language (particularly where the state is concerned), but also in demanding that we disallow false histories to continue to thrive. He is passionate about his subject, yet humble in his vulnerability. When he speaks with survivors of anti-Black violence – Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, for example, or Lessie Benningfield Randle, the 106-year-old survivor of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 – he brings a humanity and understanding to the film that may otherwise not be there.

While Robinson’s lecture is thought-provoking and his living tour of that same history is illuminating, the Kunstlers don’t add much in terms of directorial vision. Robinson is an apt orator and tour guide, but the literal translation of his lecture to screen lacks life and suffers from the inherent banality that comes with watching a recording of someone – no matter how charismatic – speaking to a live audience we are not part of.

At times, this lends a dry tone to a film that should be anything but, and leads us to ask what purpose adapting Robinson’s lecture to film might serve, if there is one. I am left wondering what a film like Who We Are, with a person such as Robinson leading the helm, could look like had it been undertaken with a bit more intention and oomph.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.