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‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’ Review: ACLU Lawyer Lays Out a Clear Case for a More Perfect Union

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Who We Are

Never underestimate people’s ability to rationalize. To paraphrase Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” our minds find ways to make sense of the nonsensical, not merely as stories but in order to move forward. It’s human nature, or as close to an understanding thereof that I can muster. Our capacity to rationalize is how we get up in the morning. It’s how the adulterer looks himself in the mirror, how the victim moves on from his trauma, how we as a country — how “we the people” — reconcile within ourselves a past we aren’t necessarily ready or willing to reconcile with publicly.

Jeffery Robinson has spent the past decade attempting to deprogram his fellow Americans. A civil rights advocate and deputy legal director for the ACLU, he has traveled the country giving an earnest, essential lecture about the United States’ complicated history of white supremacy — a history that many reject outright, or else have long ago spun in a more flattering light. Remedial in its intentions, surprisingly nonconfrontational for such a subject, Robinson’s presentation serves as the backbone of co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” an engaging and essential essay film that makes its points clearly, backed by evidence, for those open-minded enough to consider their education incomplete.

The bulk of “Who We Are” was recorded on Juneteenth 2018 before a pre-pandemic packed house at New York’s Town Hall Theater. But there’s far more to it than just Robinson standing on a stage, giving a TED Talk (a format that’s sometimes plenty effective, à la Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”). “Who We Are” accompanies Robinson to Charleston, S.C., where he engages with demonstrators fighting to protect a Confederate monument. Robinson rides the bus across town to the Old Slave Mart Museum, where he observes fingerprints in the bricks, hidden — like so much of Black history — in plain sight, a lasting trace of the enslaved people who built so much of the city.

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The film also follows Robinson to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Robinson shares a memory of having attended a public demonstration to support striking sanitation workers in the city one week earlier, a demonstration where Black 16-year-old Larry Payne was fatally shot by police. “It’s just one of those events in my childhood that made me realize how lucky I was,” says the Harvard-educated lawyer, reminding listeners of the many ways that Black Americans are shown their place. Every time such a murder goes unpunished, it sends a message.

That message, Robinson argues, suggests that we are a society that values Black lives less than white lives, today as at the time of the country’s inception — a society that bristles at virtually any attempt to expose or rectify that discrepancy. Robinson rightly considers the issue too important to ignore, doing the work to fill in the gaps deliberately omitted from our schools — like the many photographs of publicly sanctioned lynchings. He points out the language written into our laws that demonstrates, time and again, that our Founding Fathers had a very limited understanding of the words “all men are created equal.” Every American knows that phrase, and every American has been asked to accept that it was never meant to apply to all men, much less a single one of their sisters, mothers or wives. If swallowing that is not a way of rationalizing our problematic past, what is?

In his capacity as re-educator, Robinson interviews Mother Lessie Benningfield Randle, who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. For nearly a century, that tragedy — in which white forces attacked the thriving Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., burning it to the ground — failed to receive the attention it deserved. It’s hard to ignore the cost, tracking along the “steps of no return”: abandoned cement staircases leading to empty lots where affluent Black homes once stood. In the same city, he speaks with Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was killed by police in 2016, reminding that the problem is far from solved.

Throughout his presentation, Robinson refers to the “tipping point” — all those times in American history when the country gathered momentum for racial justice, only to roll back again. For this idea, he supplies a visual aid: a heavy boulder atop a hill, poised on the brink of irreversible progress. Are we so close? Is it so simple? Probably not, but it’s not impossible either.

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Robinson doesn’t spend a lot of time telling audiences what they must do. He’s too busy convincing them that there’s a problem, which would seem self-evident. Even so, there can’t be enough reminders, not while segregation, discrimination and certain forms of slavery (such as mass incarceration) continue to exist. We can go on trying to rationalize it away, or we can engage, which is really all that Robinson is asking. In the end, there’s “Who We Are” and who we can still hope to be.

Gossips

Barbie and Beyond: How Mattel Studios Executive Robbie Brenner Brings Beloved Toys to Screen

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Robbie Brenner Mattel Studios 1

Mattel Films executive V.P. Robbie Brenner has not one but two Magic 8 Balls in her office. As a mom, she’s always been partial to Barbie but admits the small black plastic orbs have a strange hold on her.

“To this day, I still shake it and think somehow it’s going to tell me what’s going to happen,” says Brenner, “and usually, I get a ‘Try again later.’”

But the producer of Oscar nominee “Dallas Buyers Club” and this year’s Sundance player “Call Jane” is not waiting around to make her moves at Mattel, the 77-year-old toy manufacturer with some of the most iconic and recognizable brands in stores (including Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl and Thomas & Friends).  Three years ago, Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz tapped Brenner to help transform the company into a content powerhouse. Since then, she has put more than a dozen feature films in motion, all using her connections and pedigree as an artist-first executive.

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“We don’t want to make movies to sell more toys — that would be great, but it has to be about telling stories with authentic voices. Ones that feel original and sticky and exciting, and do their best to serve the individual brands,” Brenner says. Operating entirely in the feature film space for the time being, Mattel has projects at studios and streamers all over Hollywood, with superstar talent attached.

Warner Bros. is in prep for “Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and directed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with partner Noah Baumbach. They’re also at script stage on a Hot Wheels film. In July, Netflix will shoot the anticipated remount of “Masters of the Universe,” with Kyle Allen starring as the buff, blonde He-Man. Universal Pictures is at work on a horror franchise based on Magic 8 Ball with Blumhouse, and the studio is bringing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots to life with Vin Diesel. At Paramount, Tom Hanks will embody his childhood favorite Major Matt Mason, the astronaut action figure, with “A Beautiful Mind” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and MGM will put forth Polly Pocket with writer-director Lena Dunham and star Lily Collins.

Variety can exclusively report that the division has also set Dan Mazer, a co-writer of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and a prolific feature comedy director, to develop a film based on the ’70s strongman Big Jim action figures. Jason Bateman’s Aggregate Films is also at work on movies based on the Mattel dolls Chatty Cathy and Betsy Wetsy.

“This pipeline is turning over, and we’re really starting to produce these incredible films that were only ideas three years ago. Ynon has empowered us, and we’ve got great energy as a company,“ Brenner says.

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In turn, she says, the toymakers have taught the studio unit about everything from the supply chain to doll-hair sourcing.

“There is so much history. Take Barbie: There’s a team that makes her hair, her clothes. There’s a team that does her social media. You need these immersions,” Brenner says. “You get into really big questions like, what is the play pattern of a toy? Why do girls like princesses and boys like the Hot Wheels loop? The psychology is fascinating.”

Mattel Studios has plenty more in the works that’s yet to be announced — including a big creative partner to adapt Matchbox toys and cars for the screen, and the rumored all-star supporting cast behind Robbie and Gosling in “Barbie.” But Brenner won’t spill the details.

“Try again later,” she says.

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Virtual Sundance Festival Announces Winners Via Twitter — Updating Live

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1643407924 Sundance Park City Atmophere

The virtual Sundance Film Festival concluded with a virtual awards show, announcing the winners via social media in a series of tweeted statements and videos.

After hosting an abridged version of the 2021 edition virtually, Sundance organizers hoped to return with a hybrid online and in-person (Park City, Utah-based) event this year, but rising COVID-19 infections due to the Omicron variant forced them to shift the program online again. With the infrastructure already in place, the festival was able to make the pivot to the safer model, while losing out on much of the excitement and attention generated by the pre-pandemic model.

The full list of winners appears below — UPDATING LIVE:

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U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Grand Jury Prize: “”

Audience Award: “”

Directing:

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: “”

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Special Jury Award: “”

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Grand Jury Prize: “”

Audience Award: “”

Directing: “”

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Special Jury Award: “”

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Grand Jury Prize: “”

Audience Award: “”

Directing Award: “”

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Special Jury Award: “”

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Grand Jury Prize: “”

Audience Award: “”

Directing Award: “”

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Special Jury Award: “”

OTHER AWARDS

NEXT Innovator Award: Chase Joynt, “Framing Agnes”

Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: “After Yang”

Sundance Institute NHK Award: Hasan Hadi, “The President’s Cake”

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Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Features: Amanda Marshall, “God’s Country”

Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Documentary Features: Su Kim, “Free Chol Soo Lee”

Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Documentary: Toby Shimin

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