I’m Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is Intersectionality Matters. In this special two-part episode, we’re taking a trip to the movies.
In part one, we’ll look at the stories that shape our understanding of America -- what they are, how they came to be told in the first place, and what other stories got snuffed out in the process.
Part two, coming soon, will explore the ways that these dominant stories are then reproduced and popularized through film and other technologies. If Hollywood has the power to write and rewrite history -- sometimes, as we saw on January 6th, to our collective peril -- how do we begin writing new stories?
Through it all, we’ll be asking--What is the Story of Us, and how can it be told differently?
At its core, the January 6th Capitol insurrection was about stories, about the centuries-long battle over which stories get told. For the Capitol insurgents themselves, their story was, “We're defending the Republic, even if we have to kill people to do it.” According to them, the election was stolen, America’s freedom was on the line, and it was up to them to do something about it.
And then there were counter-stories. The media covering the event seemed desperate to find a story that explained how something like this could happen in America, because after all, "this is not who we are." Also jumping on that train was President-Elect Biden, who basically framed the Capitol riot in the ways that parents would talk to their kids, "This is not who you are. This is not how we do things."
But no one had a story that confronted the racist underbelly head on. To say, actually, this is who we are, at least in part. No one had a story about how we've actually had coups before. We've had counter-revolutions before. We've forced legitimate governments to their knees before. And so it was really disturbing to me that in the battle over stories, no one was telling the real story that this was as American as Apple pie. It's just Apple pie being brought home to roost at the Capitol to mix the metaphors.
And while history shows us that the seduction of this American mythology is not new; the Trump administration’s efforts to industrialize and weaponize this mythology as a means for achieving such drastically self-serving and violent ends is something we haven’t seen for quite some time.
In September 2020, Trump launched the 1776 Commission, an advisory commission dedicated to propogating quote-unquote patriotic education. In other words, the commission sought to flood the country with sanitized versions of American history that downplayed the horrors of slavery and consecrated our founding fathers as Gods.
Two things are important to recognize about the 1776 commission. First of all, it was obviously a rush job, a hurried effort to put what we might call an Easter egg into the next administration. It's been roundly criticized by legitimate historians, and it's also seen as being deeply plagiaristic. So it has no value as a legitimate historic document, but that wasn’t the point, as we saw on January 6, when Trump quoted the report in his incitement of the riot.
This is where ideology and violence come together again in the same way that they came together in the Civil War, in the same way that they came together when the 1915 film Birth of a Nation prompted the tremendous growth of the KKK. So this idea of the United States being born perfect, the idea of the United States as a country that was actually born as a white male project, the idea of Black people never really being fit for citizenship, these are ideas have long circulated as a defense of what the true America is.
And for those who thought that these ideas were now ancient history, Trump had another Trump up his sleeve. He could pull out the 1776 commission as a packaging of an old nasty, violent set of ideas, activate people through this idea and basically establish what might be considered a government in exile.
That's what the power of storytelling is. And that's why it's so important to be able to read it and tell a different set of stories. But how do we tell new stories when these counterfeit ones are so deeply sewn into our collective DNA? And what does Hollywood’s dirty laundry have to do with what happened at the Capitol on January 6th?
When my colleagues at Sundance invited me to organize a conversation at this year’s virtual festival, I jumped at the chance to explore these questions with some of the greatest minds I know. So I reached into my book of amazing friends and colleagues, and asked four very special people to join me:
Bryan Stevenson has been a friend of mine since 17. We first met in high school when we were part of a group of young leaders brought together in DC (more of story, if you like)
So I was delighted that Bryan Stevenson agreed to come on and talk about the work that he's been doing throughout his career to tell different stories, to tell the stories that we don't want to hear, the stories about lynching, the stories about judicial lynchings, which happens with the death penalty. So I really wanted to get a sense of what he was thinking about after January 6.
David Blight, the storyteller of storytellers. David Blight is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Frederick Douglass's amazing biography, and also the author of Race and Reunion. He talks about how the real story of the Civil War has been distorted beyond recognition by Lost Cause ideology, and so I was keen to get his sense about how Lost Causism was showing up in these competing stories.
Now, talk about a true storyteller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author, storyteller par excellence. He tells stories within stories. So I remembered from his book, the Sympathizer, his character was involved in trying to tell a different story about the Vietnam war as part of his efforts to be part of a Hollywood blockbuster in the Vietnam War.
And lastly, Ruha Benjamin. I wanted to understand the technological innovations that made the lie at the heart of Birth of a Nation such a powerful tool of propaganda. It was that technique. It was the use of film that made people feel like, “This is truth. I've experienced it. I saw it myself.” Well, there are new technologies that do the same thing. Many of those people who stormed the Capitol genuinely believe that they are experiencing an effort to take the country away from them. How did new