'Who We Are' review: An important, if stiff, look at race in America

Jeffery Robinson takes a cold, hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at America's racist past and the ways it connects to the present.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Jeffery Robinson connects the dots between America's racist past and its present in "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America," a thorough examination of our country's history and its reverberations today. 

Early on Robinson, the deputy legal director of the national ACLU, schools a protestor holding a Confederate flag who argues the Civil War was not about race. Robinson is polite enough to shake the man's hand after their interaction, but as he drives off he says, bemused, "it seems like facts were not important to this gentleman."  

Jeffery Robinson, left, in "Who We Are."

Facts are important to Robinson, and he packs "Who We Are" with them, presenting them in cold, hard and often uncomfortable fashion. The majority of the film is taken from his filmed lecture on race, and is filled out with interviews with subjects such as the mother of Eric Garner; a former Obama aide who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his New York apartment building; and the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. 

The result is often eye-opening, even when Robinson is uncovering barely hidden truths, such as the rarely sang third verse of Francis Scott Key's Star Spangled Banner, or Key's own racist past. "Ignorance is not bliss," Robinson says, "because it allows a false history to thrive." 

"Who We Are" comes at a time of racial reckoning in America and its message deserves to be heard loud and clear, but its impact is dulled by the flat presentation from directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler. Not that it requires razzle-dazzle, but the end result has a tendency to feel like a sluggish college lecture, which does Robinson and his work a disservice. His message is excellent, the medium could use some work. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America'

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13: for thematic content, disturbing images, violence and strong language - all involving racism

Running time: 117 minutes

In theaters