How Filmmakers Transformed a Powerful ACLU Speech Into Doc ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’

Jazz Tangcay
·3-min read

Sarah and Emily Kunstler have spent their lives immersed in the civil rights movement, first as the daughters of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” attorney William Kunstler, and then forging their own careers crafting documentaries on criminal justice.

But when filmmaker and lawyer Sarah Kunstler heard a speech by ACLU attorney Jeffery Robinson at a legal education seminar, she wasn’t prepared for the words to change her life. It was an abbreviated version of the presentation on the history of racism in America that Robinson gives on lecture tours around the country, in which he says the failure of white people to oppose the oppression of Black people is akin to condoning the idea of white supremacy. “I walked out of that conference room and would never see the world the same again,” Sarah Kunstler remembers, adding that her first thought was “How can I help Jeffery get this to the largest audience possible?”

More from Variety

The result is the new documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” which bowed at SXSW and is heading to the Hot Docs Film Festival at the end of the month.

The documentary cross-cuts between Robinson’s stage presentation as he travels from Tulsa to Selma on the tour circuit and a road trip through the South where he revisits the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Charleston’s Hanging Tree as he considers the pivotal moments in America’s past.

“I wasn’t looking to make a movie,” Robinson says. “When Sarah said, ‘This presentation changed my life,’ I figured a lot of other Americans didn’t know this history either.”

Co-director Emily Kunstler, who served as the film’s editor, centered the doc on Robinson’s presentation. “We were working with this gift, and it was gold,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t go wrong.”

For interviews, they asked both Black and white locals to share their history in cities where Robinson had lived and where he was visiting on his presentation tour. They also invited those who spoke to first watch Robinson’s presentation.

Emily Kunstler’s objective as editor was to do justice to the presentation and the interviews while keeping to the core themes: who we are, where we came from and the responsibility of overcoming the legacy of white supremacy together.

She turned to her mentor, Susan Korda, an experienced documentary editor (“For All. Mankind,” “Trembling Before G-d”) who had taught her NYU film production class, to serve as a story consultant during the editing process.

The pandemic forced the Kunstler sisters into quarantine together, which Emily Kunstler says turned out to be a blessing in disguise, especially during the editing phase. “It gave us the time and the space to have this creative collaboration.”

Besides Robinson’s presentation and interviews with locals, the film includes archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and photos from the Jim Crow era.

Editing that into the mix posed less of a challenge than Emily Kunstler imagined. “The ratio of used footage to shot footage was a lot less than other documentaries,” she says. “We were very targeted in the people we selected. We found the parts that worked the best with Jeffery’s presentation, and we followed the emotion.”

Adds Robinson, “We wanted people to tell the timeline of the story and how they fit into American history.”

Perspective is the key, says Sarah Kunstler. “Ultimately,” she explains, “it’s a history of white supremacy and white acquiescence just as much as it’s a history of Black oppression and Black resistance.”

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.