It wasn’t until the making of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” that Jeffery Robinson found out there that in New York City where he had spent much of his adult life, serving in recent years as the Deputy Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, there was a slave market called the Cotton Exchange that brought so much money into the metropolis’ coffers — $200 million in 1860s dollars — that the mayor Fernando Wood had urged the city to join the South in secession during the Civil War.
“I don’t know if Emily and Sarah [Kunstler, the film’s co-directors] were planning to film [there], but we found this woman giving this tour and she had amazing information — the Cotton Exchange Building that she describes in the film was literally a block-and-a-half from the apartment that I was living in when I was working at the ACLU,” says Robinson, still with some astonishment. “I walked past it every day and I had no idea what went on there.”
Not that Robinson hadn’t been looking. Over the past decade, he had been inspired to look a little deeper into American history after becoming a guardian to his 13-year-old nephew and wanted to make sense of the world for the young Black teenager and in spite of an education that was capped off at Harvard Law School before becoming a trial attorney, Robinson was blown away by what he had learned from traveling around the country to learn more about the wide swath of the country where slavery was a part of American life and has created inequality to this day. He could impart these lessons to his nephew, but they also served as the foundation for something even bigger when they took the form of a presentation that he could bring to the same communities he had visited previously to put their experience into a larger context.
After seeing the talk for herself, Sarah Kunstler recruited her sister Emily to join her in taking the presentation to an even bigger stage and the result, which spans over 250 years and sees Robinson speak at the Town Hall in New York City, but travel to such places as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charleston, South Carolina where he had directly confront the implications of horrors long ago continue to reverberate into everyday life, from socioeconomic status to attitudes towards policing. When talking to locals who insist that the Civil War was fought over moral tariffs rather than slavery, it’s clear that Robinson’s rigorously researched presentation is needed now more than ever, but he seeks to enlighten rather than enrage, extending the same sense of revelation that he experienced himself as he meets with high school classmates to learn of basketball games that were nearly called off because of his presence in the ‘60s, as well as those who have stood at the edge of history such as Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Massacre, and has the perspective to look at such typically unquestioned parts of American governance from crime legislation to the Electoral College show how oppression has simply taken other forms since slavery was abolished.
Given his longtime profession, Robinson knows how to make a convincing case, one that is bound to surprise at least a little when it reveals the central presentation was shot before the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront of the culture after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the Kunstlers, who previously profiled their legendary father William Kunstler, the passionate civil rights champion, in the 2009 doc “Disturbing the Universe” have captured the presentation in such a way to form the same connection with audiences as one would experience seeing it in person. Such power has been evident since the premiere of “Who We Are” last spring at SXSW where the film picked up the audience award in the Documentary Spotlight category and on the eve of the film’s theatrical run, the Kunstlers and Robinson spoke about how they opened up the filmmaking process to make people feel as if their voices were being heard, how the experience of putting the film together has already reshaped what the presentation and the inspiration that it’s already provided for people to make changes in their lives.
After seeing the presentation, what were the conversations like after to get this off the ground as a movie?
Sarah Kunstler: I called Emily and said, “there’s something that you have to do with me” and we looked for what was available [so I could show her Jeffery’s talk]. There were a few things on YouTube, and Emily was hooked just from that, but she realized like I did that there was more there than just a static presentation.
Emily Kunstler: The first time Sarah and I saw Jeff speak, it changed both our lives and we wanted to make a movie that would have that impact on the audiences that viewed it.
Sarah Kunstler: Jeff is so dynamic in person. He’s like the teacher you wish you had in school and [that] was missing online, so we figured out how to get in touch with Jeff and we met at a Starbucks near the ACLU offices in Manhattan…
Jeffery Robinson: I knew from their last name who they were. My wife was talking to me last night as I was packing, saying, “God I remember when you called me and said, ‘These two women who just sat down with me are the daughters of William Kunstler and they want to make a movie about this talk.” [laughs] And that was in April of 2017 and on Juneteenth of 2018, we were in Town Hall Theater in New York City with a packed house and seven cameras to film a version of my talk. We then started going around the country and I would give my talk and we would then speak to people in the places where we were traveling who had personal experiences that would help reveal the history of our country that we wanted people to understand.
I’ve heard that the interviews would actually happen after you gave your talk – was that an interesting starting place for these conversations with the people who end up in the film?
Emily Kunstler: We had a team of amazing producers [including] Andrea Crabtree, and we would try to identify people in communities that we wanted to speak to, but trust is such a crucial part of making a documentary. You can’t just swoop into a town with the expectation that someone’s going relive a traumatic experience for you, nor should they. Sarah once described it as like a tent revival. We’d swoop in, we’d put on a show and they’d see Jeff and Jeff is such a welcoming, humble human being that just reaches people in a very personal way, so it would help us jumpstart that trust that you need to make a film, so then the next day people would reach out to Jeff or we’d reach out to them and the trust would be there that hadn’t been the day before.
Jeffrey, were the places you wanted to visit correspond with how you processed this history yourself or was any of it new to you?
Jeffery Robinson: There were definitely certain places we thought we had to visit. Charleston, South Carolina, if you go back through records, some historians say that perhaps as high as 70 percent of all African Americans in America today have a lineage that can be traced back to that port because that was the port for the Transatlantic slave trade. It was one of the most Southern cities in the United States and it had a huge port, so that’s where the boats came. Then I felt we had to go the Memphis because of the King Assassination and because I grew up there, so I knew some stories. And we knew we had to go to Tulsa because of the massacre, but we also ended up finding places, “Oh, we need to be here as well.”
That interview with Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last living survivors that was there during the Tulsa massacre, looked like a special moment for the film and required a special set-up. What went into that?
Sarah Kunstler: We went to Tulsa twice and the first time we were there, we didn’t even know that Miss Benningfield existed. We talked to the community and asked if anyone knew of any survivors from the massacre and they said, “Oh, we don’t know. We’ll ask around.” But Miss Benningfield, [also known as Mother Randle], is a protected member of her community and I don’t think that we would’ve met her if we had just gone down there one time and had a real commitment to that community. In fact, we still have a real commitment to that community, and the second time we went down there, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher [the founder of the Terence Crutcher Foundation] mentioned Mother Randle to us and said that maybe she’d be willing to talk to us, so we came back a second time and actually at that time, Mother Randle wasn’t feeling well enough for an interview. It was right before her 106th birthday, so she has good days and bad days, but we knew how important that interview was.
Jeffery Robinson: It was a highlight and as you could see from the interview, on her good days, she is all there and it was a privilege to be able to speak with her and I think it was the work we did on the two occasions we went to Tulsa with the other people in the community that made them feel like “Okay, these folks are the real deal,” and quite frankly, we shouldn’t have gotten that interview without what we did in Tulsa.
Sarah Kunstler: Even though the pandemic started and we couldn’t travel any more and we didn’t want to put Mother Randle’s health in any kind of jeopardy, we had Titus Jackson, a local photographer who lives in Tulsa and ended up being an associate producer on the project who went to Mother Randle’s, wrapped in cellophane. [laughs] We set up the interview and did it that way. But it was so crucial because of the role the Tulsa Massacre plays in Jeff’s presentation that to have a survivor, if we could, because there’s so few left. In fact, as far as we know, Mother Randle might be one of two that are left and that interview was so amazing for all of us. We feel so lucky to be invited into her living room via Zoom to participate in it.
I’ve heard a story that someone was so taken with your presentation that they ended up filming the establishing shots for it – was that actually Titus Jackson as well?
Emily Kunstler: That’s Titus. He was one of the people that came to Jeff’s presentation and he was taking notes. In fact, he begged Jeff for an audio copy because he wanted his children to hear it, and Jeff doesn’t part with those ever really…
Jeffery Robinson: But I sent it to him.
Emily Kunstler: Yeah, it changed his life. When Sarah and I were editing this film together last summer, we had to stop shooting because of the pandemic, but we knew we had to shoot some footage in order to finish the film and we asked Titus if he would retrace our steps across the country that we had filmed and get drone footage at the sites that we visited, so he took his whole family – they went on a family road trip/vacation at the height of the pandemic as safely as he could [because] he also wanted his children to see these historic sites, and it was amazing. We could not have made this film without him.
Sarah Kunstler: He’s also a documentary filmmaker. He has a film “Broklahoma” about the decline of public education in Oklahoma. He’s a fantastic human and filmmaker.
Jeffery Robinson: Some of the footage that you saw from when we’re talking about Charleston and the fingerprints in bricks came from Titus and all of the drone footage. And just the fact that he decided on his own, can I have an audio copy of the presentation because I want to listen to it again because there are things I missed and I want to make sure I get it all and then being willing to go from Tulsa to Memphis to Charleston to Alabama — he was just such an incredible, incredible person in terms of the work that we had to do to make this film into what it’s become.
Emily Kunstler: And he went back to the Steps to Nowhere, which are these stairs in Tulsa, what’s left of the Black middle class and upper class homes that were destroyed and that’s the only thing that’s left [from the massacre]. When we were there, there was no graffiti on the stairs because that was before the murder of George Floyd, but by the time Titus went back to do his drone shot, someone had written George Floyd’s name across the steps and it’s so powerful, having that in the film, just the connection between George Floyd and these stairs.
Jeffery, you’ve said you change the presentation all the time, though I imagine the core is the same. Did the making of the film actually have an impact on it?
Jeffery Robinson: I can honestly say, going back to about 2013, I have never given the same presentation twice because I continue to learn. I’ll give the presentation today and two months from now, I’ll give it again, but there are things that have happened, so the presentation that I gave that was the backbone of the film was in 2018 and if I gave the presentation as it sits today, you wouldn’t recognize the first 45 minutes of it because none of it had happened. We didn’t have an insurrection on January 6th, we hadn’t had an explosion of this fake opposition to Critical Race Theory being taught to fourth and fifth graders. We hadn’t had so many other things that continued to happen and then there are things from the past that we continued to discover, so the presentations will change. That is part of the Who We Are Project, which is the project that I started because I left the ACLU with this film, feeling this is really important.
Part of our focus is bringing people this kind of education and what I will teach today, there will be similar things six months from now, but there will be different things because this is a continuing, never-ending story. Sarah and Emily would say one of our original goals was to get a really good copy of the presentation that we could send around so more people would see it and more people could see it that way than me traveling around the country, and we are continuing to work with Sarah and Emily at Off-Center Media to develop these kind of presentations by going around the country and speak to people who have history in their lives. That’s something I really look forward to because the Who We Are Project is centered on changing the narrative on anti-Black racism in this country in the next five years and the way we are going to help try and to do that is by bringing these stories that are fully documented to America and showing how they tie into what is a history that has brought us here. We’re very excited about that challenge and I’m thrilled that Sarah and Emily are going to be taking that journey with us.