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In ‘Who We Are,’ a truth-seeker confronts racism in America

Jeffery Robinson is interviewed for the film "Who We Are" outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.Jesse Wakeman/Sony Picture Classics

Those who would prefer not to be made uncomfortable should steer clear of Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (2021), a peripatetic guide to the darker truths of American history.

In 2018 on Juneteenth (June 19, the date in 1865 when the last Black community — in Galveston, Texas — learned about the Emancipation Proclamation), former American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson delivered the title lecture at the Town Hall Theater in New York. In it he examines the Black experience in America from the arrival of the first slaves in 1619 to the present day.

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It is a history lesson that many school syllabuses don’t include and, if certain politicians have their way, never will. Robinson himself expresses shock that despite receiving degrees from Marquette University and Harvard Law School he himself had not known some of these facts until he looked into them recently.

Not only has this history been forgotten, obscured, and repressed, but toxic myths have replaced them — the cause of the Civil War, for example. Many insist it wasn’t about slavery. But Robinson goes back to the sources, the statements by the states seceding from the Union in which they put the preservation of slavery as the top reason for their actions.

The audience members at the Town Hall Theater in liberal New York City don’t need much convincing (lest they get too self-congratulatory Robinson points out New York City’s history of connivance with the slave trade, including a plan to secede from the Union during the Civil War). So he takes his case to Charleston, S.C., at the site of Fort Sumter where the war started. There he confronts a white man bearing a Confederate battle standard who insists that Black people benefited from the Peculiar Institution. When freed, he says, “they chose to stay … They were treated like family.” Robinson replies, “Then why wouldn’t it be all right if I owned you as long as I treated you like family?” The man is stymied for an answer but remains unswayed.

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Jeffery Robinson (center) speaks with a man displaying a Confederate flag during the filming of "Who We Are."Sarah Kunstler/Sony Pictures Classics

Here, as elsewhere, Robinson — a powerful, impassioned, and laceratingly lucid speaker — displays patience and persistence as he tries to explain racism to racist white people. But in this case he pleads illness and has to break off the encounter. Afterward he says he wanted to engage further with the Confederacy apologist, but for many people facts have nothing to do with what they believe. He doubts that these people will ever change regardless of efforts to enlighten them, “but if nobody [tries], they definitely won’t.”

To describe the progress of civil rights he uses a Sisyphean analogy: A ball is pushed up an incline almost to the top, as it was after the Civil War and during Reconstruction — which he points out, despite what some historians have held to the contrary, was actually working. Then in 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled out the federal troops from the South who were protecting the rights of Black citizens and so unleashed the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, the myth of the Lost Cause, and lynching.

In the mid-20th century the civil rights movement began pushing the ball up again, and court decisions and legislation offered hope for the future. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, back it went. Now the gains achieved in the past are unraveling, but the efforts of young people in movements such as Black Lives Matter are trying to get the ball rolling again. Will they succeed?

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Robinson illustrates his lecture with charts, archival clips, and photos as well as visits to significant sites, including the Lorraine Motel in his hometown of Memphis, where King was shot. In one especially brutal segment he lists the number of lynchings in every year from 1901 to 1910 and illustrates them with a montage of photographs of charred and hanged victims surrounded by leering mobs of white men, women, and children. “From 1877 to 1950,” he says, “there were more than 4,000 … lynchings in America.” Another montage, which he calls his “snuff films,” includes recent scenes of police killing unarmed Black people.

The prospect is bleak. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Robinson says, quoting George Orwell’s “1984.″ “Who controls the present controls the past.” Now, he suggests, is the time to act.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” opens Feb. 4 at the Kendall Square, Boston Common, AMC South Bay, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Go to https://tickets.whowearemovie.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.