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Transcript from IMKC "The Story of Us: Part 1"

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 technology allow them to believe that with the fervor that they did, and what do we need to do about these new technologies?


So I had a great crew and we had a great conversation.


~~

So as Viet brilliantly said, all wars are fought twice. First, there's the actual war, and then there's the war of memory. And I would build on that and say, not only is it that this war is fought twice, it's a war that’s fought repeatedly across history. And over the last century, Hollywood has basically been Fort Sumter (/ground zero?)


If history is written and rewritten through cinema, as Viet says it is, then Hollywood bears some responsibility for the consequences of these warped narratives, the Capitol rioters, those assaulting the Capitol to save the imperiled nation, riding to the rescue like the Klan did in the Birth of a Nation.


But how did the losers of the Civil War get their story to shape the future? How did it happen, and what explains the fact that this old racist storyline hasn't been utterly dismantled?


Well, for that, we have to revisit David Blight’s story that he told us at the beginning of this podcast, when he spoke about President Wilson's framing of the Civil War as a “quarrel forgotten”. How is it that the Civil War, a massive cataclysmic event that wiped out a significant percentage of the population, blood being spilled over the right to hold African Americans in perpetual bondage, how does that not register in American memory as a treasonous event, a poisonous illustration about the utter destructiveness of white supremacy?


Instead it is through white supremacy, as David and Bryan lay out, that the North and the South were able to make up, to change the story to one of reconciliation, that quarrell forgotten and an entire people, by the way, abandoned. And we've been living with the consequence of this storyline ever since.


~~~

In the next section, we hear from Viet Thanh Nguyen about how the prevailing myth of American innocence gains power through film, and then gets rehearsed in that “this is not who we are” response to January 6th.


We also hear from Ruha Benjamin, who explains how narrative tropes -- like heroes vs villains, catharsis, and redemption -- can warp our understanding of past and present events. She starts by exploring how this narrative conditioning may have influenced the telling of the story of Eugene Goodman, the Capitol police officer whose courageous actions on January 6th helped save the lives of Mitt Romney and other members of Congress.


~~

Intersectionality Matters is produced by Julia Sharpe-Levine. Today’s episode was edited by Julia Sharpe-Levine, with support from Amarachi Anakaraonye (A-KNACK-a-RON-yay), Rebecca Scheckman, Destiny Spruill, and the team at the African American Policy Forum. You can subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and everywhere podcasts are available. You can also support us by following us on social media, and by joining our Patreon page for bonus episodes and exclusive content. I’m your host Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is Intersectionality Matters.



~~

In the first part of the conversation, I ask Bryan Stevenson and David Blight to delve deeper into some of the stories that drove the insurrectionist to seize the Capitol, and the stories that shaped liberal responses to it. What exactly are the default narratives that we return to time and time again, and why are they so seductive to Republicans and Democrats alike? What's got to happen for the US to begin to tell a more honest story about its origins?


SECTION 1 Bryan Stevenson:

Well, in many ways, I don't think we've ever created narratives about Wilmington and Tulsa and much of our history that have been given to the American people. Most Americans I wouldn't even suggest all Americans walk around with a false narrative of who we are, of what this country is. It's what we were taught in school. It is a narrative of greatness. This is narrative of achievement, but it is false because it is incomplete.

We are a nation that is also a post-genocide society. What happened when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide? We killed millions of indigenous people through famine and war and disease. We created a narrative of racial difference. We said that those indigenous people, those native people they're savages. And we use the rhetoric of that narrative to disconnect from their well-being, their humanity. And we created a constitution that talked about equality and justice, but didn't extend to the millions of native people who were dying.

And we use that narrative for racial difference to then get comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery. We are a slave society. They had slavery all over the world. In most countries, there were societies with slaves. America actually became a slave society. We created a narrative that made slavery about race. The great evil of slavery wasn't the involuntary servitude. It wasn't the forced labor. It was this idea that black people aren't as good as white people, that black people are less human, less capable, less evolve.

That narrative of white supremacy that was the true evil of American slavery. The Civil War comes, and the north wins the Civil War, but the south wins the narrative war because that idea of racial hierarchy of white supremacy continues. Even some abolitionists didn't believe in racial equality. That's why I've argued that slavery doesn't end in 1865. It just evolves. We passed the 13th Amendment that talks about ending involuntary servitude and forced labor, but says nothing about ending this racial hierarchy. It's why reconstruction fails because we weren't committed to a narrative of equality and lawlessness then defines the 20th century. Black people pulled out of their homes, beaten, drowned, tortured, tormented, lynched.

Sometimes on the courthouse lawn, our Supreme Court did nothing. Our Congress did nothing. Our policymakers did nothing. We were a nation in the first half of the 20th century that gave in to lawlessness. That created this mass exodus and the black people who went to Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn't go to those communities as immigrants. They went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South.

Then, we had the Civil Rights movement, but even there, the narrative was corrupted. It was a false narrative. We had courageous people who did courageous things, but that narrative of racial difference was never confronted. The presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned in black and brown people was never really addressed.

After the Civil Rights era when we passed the voting rights law and the Civil Rights law, we had the same phenomena happening that we had after the Civil War retreat from enforcement. Then, we created this new institution of mass incarceration over incarceration. At the beginning of the 21st century, we're hearing from the Justice Department that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison, and no one responds.

We don't react to that with a kind of pandemic level of concern. And our jails and prisons fill up, and black people are shot and killed on the streets by the police. And people are confused why there's such anger and frustration.

The narrative of America that we need to confront as a narrative we've never been forced to confront and so The challenge we have is will we find the courage to do this because in other countries where this has happened, South Africa, Germany, there was a tremendous shift in power. Black South Africans took over. That's why you had truth and reconciliation.


In Germany, the Germans lost. That's why there's a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. And the consequence of that shift in power has yielded something that I think is powerful. When you go to Berlin, there's a reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. I don't believe succeed too long by talking about make Germany great again, by invoking some romanticized vision of … It would not be acceptable to the world to have that.

There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. It would be unconscionable for someone to say, "Let's honor the architects of the Third Reich." But in this country, I live in Alabama surrounded by the iconography of the confederacy where we honor and romanticize the defenders, the perpetrators of this violence. And those images that many of those folks took to Washington on the 6th is an indictment of our failure collectively to tell the honest story. And Hollywood, and storytellers and filmmakers are implicated in that because it was a generation of cowboy and Indian films that kept us away from dealing with the native genocide.

It was a century of storytelling that made slavery somehow romantic and benign and put black people in roles that we were led to believe they were happy to be enslaved and marginalized and disenfranchised. It was even in the storytelling of Civil Rights that we had to create white saviors to kind of get those stories palatable. I think that's the challenge that we face. We've got to confront this. That's why I believe we're really at a moment when we need an era of truth and justice. That's the challenge that I think awaits this country. It's the reason why we had that explosion of lawlessness and mob violence on the 6th of January.


Kimberle Crenshaw: I was glad, Bryan, that you named alternatives and also brought cinema into it. When we look at the arc that you talked about, one of the ways that reconstruction's overthrow was justified was through projecting the criminality of blackness, the criminality which requires so many efforts to contain and punish and discipline and control that the state wasn't even up to the task.

We needed the Ku Klux Klan. That was very much part of Birth of a Nation. And we see its influence stretching a century and beyond the moment that the narrative was made into an experience that people think they actually witnessed. That's what the technology of film did at that moment.

We're looking at a situation where the continuity of the narratives and the technology of their production and experience are woven to together in ways that haven't been, I think, interrogated sufficiently.

I want to bring David in here as well. Bryan was talking about dimensions of the Lost Cause frame and what was necessary to make it palatable so that, effectively, the south won the narrative war. What is it that you see in the sort of revivalism of Lost Causeism in American politics now and particularly is playing out in January the 6th?


David Blight:

Well, thanks. Hard to follow Bryan. I love the way Bryan can capture so much history in single sentences. I wish I could do that. Anyway, to the original idea, he brought up of this broad master American narrative that we are a people of progress always improving, always solving our problems.

I think it was Richard Hofstadter, at least that's who's given credit for it, who once said, "The problem with what some people do American history is America was born perfect and then launched its career of improvement," which-


Kimberle Crenshaw:

I love that. 1776 commission, right?


David Blight:

Exactly.


Kimberle Crenshaw:

That's current.


David Blight:

That's why that 1776 project, well, it's one of the reasons it's to be denounced and avoided. But anyway, in the wake of the Civil War to go right to the core of where Bryan took this, the closest thing we ever had to a... really wasn't, but The closest thing we ever had to a truth and justice commission were the Ku Klux Klan hearings. In 1871, the Grant administration to its credit went after the Klan especially in South Carolina, but in other upper south states as well.

They ended up holding hearings in seven states. It developed 14 massive volumes of testimony. These were perpetrators of violence, and these were victims of violence. After these testimonies that went on in seven different states with tribunals of congressmen by the way, Congress had never done anything like this before.

They ended up, and the purpose of this was to try to prosecute people. They ended up with about 3000 indictments. About 2000 others had their charges dropped. This was for the massive level of tortures and murders and burnings and so on done by the Klan from roughly 1868 to '71.

600 people were convicted. 250 were acquitted. Most of them got very light sentences. 65 people, out of those totals, actually went to prison. And none of them for more than five years in a penitentiary in Albany in New York and they were all out by the election of 1876. Now, one of the reasons they threw out a lot of cases is they said the court dockets were just so overloaded they couldn't even assess the trials. But here's the point of all of that. The Klan was put out of business, but not the Klan's methods and not the Klan's ideas. It just took on different names and different tactics and different places.

What, just the year after that was the worst massacre of reconstruction in Colfax, Louisiana where about 50 blacks were murdered in cold blood trying to vote. Then, another roughly 300 in that Red River region were killed in the wake of it. Then, the Klan evolved into other kinds of forces and methods.

A point though on this Lost Cause idea, one of the reasons the Klan hearings did not produce more widespread justice was because of this demand developing across the culture for reconciliation, for reunion of north and south to somehow put the place back together in peace which did have to happen.

The question was always how you did it. Reconciliation, we should learn from what happened in the wake of our Civil War always comes with cost. In fact, at Blue-Gray Reunions which were reunions of soldiers, these were not easy to do at first, but by the 1890s, they were happening all over the country even in northern cities. They usually advertise these Blue-Gray Reunions with slogans like “harmonious forgetfulness.” “Harmonious forgetfulness,” just think about what that means.

Then, finally, they had the great 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, this massive spectacle. 53,000 veterans gathered at public expense from all corners of the country. And the whole thing was a segregated Jim Crow reunion. There were no black veterans invited. The only black people at that great Gettysburg reunion were black men who built the latrines, handed out the blankets to the old soldiers and worked in the kitchens that provided the food.

The United States had its 50th anniversary of Gettysburg. Therefore, the Civil War had a Jim Crow reunion. And the whole spirit of that reunion was captured by none other than Woodrow Wilson who was the first southern-born president elected after the Civil War. He didn't want to go to Gettysburg, but he was told by aids, "No, no, sir. You have to go. You don't understand. You have to go."

He comes. He shows up. He gives a speech in a giant tent to all these veterans. What does he call the Civil War? He calls it “the quarrel forgotten,” just the “quarrel forgotten.” He left them with this image of all these glorious old men looking into each other's eyes and finding love again. Anyway, that's what “harmonious forgetfulness” gets us.

And the warning there, and I'll stop with this, the caution, of course, is all this talk of unity now, all this talk of healing about our recent experience whether it's 6th January or everything in the Trump years, our history tells us be very careful about how much healing you promote without real justice to go with it. That's our task in front of us right now. It isn't going to be any easier this time than it was a hundred years ago.

~~~


Now President Wilson is the president that screened Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915. We'll delve way deeper into Birth of a Nation in the next episode, but it's basically Hollywood's 1776 project. It's got all the bells and whistles of what was new in technology at the time. It made viewers feel like they were there, that they were witnesses to the history of the Civil War, and all of the excitement of the KKK coming to the rescue. It made people feel like they were riding to the rescue with the KKK.


But as we subsequently discuss, it's not just the technology of Birth of a Nation that explains why its influence is so enduring. The basic ingredients that make up that film, and others like it, get replayed and rehearsed time and time again. What’s even more terrifying? The fact that we’ve become so conditioned to expect these storylines, that we often don’t even realize when we’re seeing them.


In the next section, Ruha Benjamin explains how some of these tropes -- like heroes vs villains, catharsis, and redemption -- can warp our understanding of the past, and can even influence how we ourselves tell stories.


We then hear from Viet Thanh Nguyen about how the prevailing myth of American innocence gains power through film, and then gets rehearsed in that “this is not who we are” response to January 6th.


~~~


SECTION 2 Ruha Benjamin:

There was actually a first round of images, if you recall, that seemed to show him being chased by the Capitol mobs up the stairs. Then, soon after, there was a second round from a different angle, different set of footage, that was dissected still by still that projected the story that he was actually very savvily diverting the mobs away from the senators. There was a sense of relief that he went from being the tragic negro to the magical negro in a matter of hours with these different angles and stories. In some ways, there was a sense that we had substituted the typical white savior of the Hollywood narratives with a black savior in terms of saving people's lives and saving and really diverting the outcome here. But I think, for me, what really I'm wrestling with is the hunt almost immediately for heroes amidst these villains. That kind of casting of heroes and villains, I think, allows the rest of us observing and witnessing to distance ourselves from the everyday forms of white supremacy that don't have nooses, that don't have confederate flags. It's that distancing in the casting, in the mantra that this is not America.


So if we think of storytelling as part of the DNA of humanity, then so much of this legacy of white supremacy is being baked into technologies that are having impact on every area of our lives.

And the lie at the heart of whether it's cinema or these other technologies is that there's some neutral objective kernel to it, that it has this veneer of objectivity that the more we believe that it is neutral and objective, the less likely we are to question the stories that are baked into these systems.

There's so many examples we could pull from. But I would say that in addition to our discussion about the watchful public on January 6, the one other wrinkle I want to put in the conversation is that the public wasn't just watchful. But everyday people were also storytellers on that day and then, the aftermath. What I mean by that is that with the proliferation of social media, people aren't just consuming but producing stories. One of the interesting sort of genres in the aftermath of January 6 was the hashtag no-fly list which were initially videos of Capitol rioters who were being arrested and pulled off of flights or off of other transportation… and recording those and, first, those went viral.

Then, there was a second round of videos that took the original footage and remixed it and put it to music and created memes. There was this element of catharsis that went along with this using these social media technologies to tell a kind of story about the aftermath that I think on one level might have made people feel, good kind of spectacle of justice lite, L-I-T-E.

But I think that the fleeting virality of that kind of digital shaming that we saw, it really stands in contrast to the otherwise light touch of law enforcement that many people have noted with the question what if those were black lives matter protesters. I think that tech mediated catharsis that came from that more participatory form of storytelling through social media and all of those memes that came out of that are a really poor substitute for a more sustained reckoning with what actually went down.


Kimberle Crenshaw: Yeah. As is often the case, social justice minded uses of technology try to keep and try to intervene and interrupt and sometimes do so. But it's always against the backdrop of who has access first to technology and what the dominant narrative line is. These are interruptions against pre-existing narratives.

Viet, I want to come to you again on the question of January 6. This is not who we are as we marry that to sort of the conventions of character and storylines and characters that we know about and ask you what you see as a more useful analogy, perhaps, that captures the America that was unmasked by the events of January 6th.


Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, I think certainly what happened was that the literal inability of people to wear masks is also a revelation of what was behind the mask for so many of these people and their followers who believed that taking the Capitol was the way to take the country back.

But what I think is another analogy for understanding some of the points that other people have made, for example, Bryan brought up the issue that genocide and slavery are fundamental to this country and David brought the issue that America is contradictorily both born perfect and is always improving, I think one of the ways that this happens repeatedly is that Americans believe that they are innocent.

We are innocent of all these things that have happened in our history. When something like the Capitol attack happens, our reflexes to say or reflex of many people is to say this is not who we are because we're shocked by this kind of a revelation and yet throughout American history, we are, as a nation, perpetually shocked every time something contradicts our mythology of ourselves.

And the narrative of American innocence, I think, is fundamental to the way that American storytelling works and especially how Hollywood operates as America's unofficial ministry of propaganda. We don't need an official ministry of propaganda unlike, let's say, in China or the former Soviet Union because we have Hollywood where our local values oftentimes intersect with dominant American values.

I think Birth of a Nation perfectly exemplifies this kind of function that Hollywood plays. Of course now, we can look back at that film and renounce the fact that the KKK is the central protagonist of that movie. But, in fact, Hollywood has taken the template of Birth of a Nation from the rescue of a damsel in distress, through the rescue of a nation, to fending off hordes of colored people and privileging white heroes and made that the template of many, many Hollywood blockbusters.

What I like to say looking at this intersection of Hollywood storytelling and American tragedy is that all wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and the second time in memory. Certainly, we see that with the Civil War and the Lost Cause ideology that we're still fighting this war over and over. We see it in things like the Vietnam War where the United States lost and yet has fought the war over and over again.

It illustrates the power of American story coming out of Hollywood, in that Hollywood has the power to write history. Even though the United States lost to Vietnam War, it has actually written the history of the Vietnam War for the world through cinema. And even though the confederacy lost the war, the power of the Lost Cause ideology has meant that the narrative of the Lost Cause has been very central to American storytelling.

So on the screen or on the page, one of the most important things we have to confront is that people aren't simple. And countries aren't simple. If we believe in the idea of innocence, then we're shocked, but Hollywood storytellers and anybody who's written stories obviously knows that most people are probably more like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have contradictory aspects of our personalities. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the true test of a fine intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function. And again, American innocence short circuits that ability to function, but people outside of the United States who have been subject to American power find it fairly easy to understand that the United States is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that there's a good parts and bad parts of the country that are fundamentally at odds with each other and are born out of the original conditions of this country. That makes for great stories that if we can confront that kind of a contradiction.


~~


So as Viet brilliantly said, all wars are fought twice. First, there's the actual war, and then there's the war of memory. And I would build on that and say, not only is it that this war is fought twice, it's a war that’s fought repeatedly across history. And over the last century, Hollywood has basically been Fort Sumter (/ground zero?)


If history is written and re-written through cinema, as Viet says it is, then Hollywood bears some responsibility for the consequences of these warped narratives, the Capitol rioters, those assaulting the Capitol to save the imperiled nation, riding to the rescue like the Klan did in the Birth of a Nation.


But how did the losers of the Civil War get their story to shape the future? How did it happen, and what explains the fact that this old racist storyline hasn't been utterly dismantled?


Well, for that, we have to revisit David Blight’s story that he told us at the beginning of this podcast, when he spoke about President Wilson's framing of the Civil War as a “quarrel forgotten”. How is it that the Civil War, a massive cataclysmic event that wiped out a significant percentage of the population, blood being spilled over the right to hold African Americans in perpetual bondage, how does that not register in American memory as a treasonous event, a poisonous illustration about the utter destructiveness of white supremacy?


Instead it is through white supremacy, as David and Bryan lay out, that the North and the South were able to make up, to change the story to one of reconciliation, that quarrell forgotten and an entire people, by the way, abandoned. And we've been living with the consequence of this storyline ever since.


SECTION 3 David Blight:

Reconciliations, you know, if we think about it, whether they're personal, familial nations, whole cultures, reconciliations have costs. And the question is what are the costs of reconciling? Uh, and can you control what those costs are? There will be costs to reconciliation. It's, it's what it demands of us, but what are we willing to pay in cost, to reconcile something, um, especially now that this radical right ideological movement has such a home within the Republican party, you know, it's, it's, this, isn't a fringe thing now it's, it's, it's lodged in, uh, a major political party. And how do you reconcile with that?


Bryan Stevenson:

I really don't talk about reconciliation that much anymore. Not that word, because we were never in a place of community and harmony that we can claim to be trying to get back to. Black people were crime victims kidnapped, brought here. Then we were enslaved. Then we were abandoned. Then we were disenfranchised and we were segregated. Now we are incarcerated. That moment that we're trying to connect to does not exist in the American experience.


But that's why some of us are talking about repair. Some of us talk about remedy. That's why some of us talk about these other R words, because they're more descriptive of what needs to happen, given this history. uh, you know, you wouldn't say to any Jewish survivor, Oh, you should reconcile with the Nazis, with the Nazi, still in power. It would be unconscionable. Even the concept of Make America Great Again, is a concept rooted in this idea that our best days are somehow behind us, that there's a period in American history that we all recognize as being the greatest period of America and for women, I'd really like somebody to explain to me when that period was folks, I really would like to explain, we had a Senate candidate here in Alabama, Roy Moore, who ran in 2018 and was pressed on it. And he said, well, you know, obviously in the 1850s and sixties, I mean, I know slavery was bad, but that's the period when America was, was greatest.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: Oh my god.


Bryan Stevenson:

Isn’t that crazy? If in Germany, they, somebody started to make Germany great. Again, talking about that period in the early part of the 20th century, I would recognize that for what it is, because you cannot be German and not know the history of the Holocaust, it's just not possible. Every German student goes there. It is a part of the way Germany has responded to that history. And that's the reason why my work is so focused on creating a new understanding in relationship to the legacy of slavery and lynching and all these other things, because we've allowed this country to now enter, uh, it's, you know, fourth century with no effort at memory around these things.

~~


I have to say, I was speechless when Bryan told that thing about Roy Moore. I looked it up afterwards so I could see it for myself, and it was worse than I even imagined.


Here's what he said: "I think it was great at the time when families were united, even though we had slavery, people were strong in the families. Our families were strong. Our country had a direction and we corrected many of the problems." End quote.


Ok, so we’re talking about antebellum United States. Slavery United States.When 4 million people were enslaved. People whose families were not allowed to stay together, they were torn apart, most never to be seen again.


United in direction? Yeah, that direction? White supremacy. Black subordination. Bondage. That’s not a past that many of us have any fantasy about wanting to go back to.


But hey, it makes sense if that's the story you want to tell, of a country born perfect and continuing to get better ever since. The right knows that stories matter, and they’re damn good at using them to achieve their political goals. So what do we have to do about it>


Well, look, there’s an enormous cache of stories, of histories that have told the truth that we'd rather not see. The question is, how do we get those ideas into the mainstream? How do we build cinema around a more inclusive, a more critical and honest confrontation of what our history actually is? Because right now, we’re still rooted in a framing of American cinema that owes more to D.W Griffith than it owes to the believers in our better angels. Those who actually sacrificed to make this country better. It's not that this country used to be great, and needs to go back to that. Rather, we need to build a new future by seeing plainly all that our country has been, and all the efforts that have been made to make this country a different one.


So the real challenge, even to those liberals who believe that we need to do better, is to define what doing better really is. It's not diversity, it’s not just casting more Black people in narratives that rehearse the same tropes and the same storylines. It's about really challenging those narratives, challenging those expectations, understanding how the history of American and cinema is intertwined and embedded in American memory. It's the same challenge that we face as a democracy. It's not just about putting more Black faces in high places. It's about actually interrogating what those high places do, how they continue to function to extend the initial sins of the Republic into the contemporary moment.

So yeah, we can tell diverse stories about how indigenous people and Black people and other non-whites were part of the American project. Or we could tell stories about how those projects deny democracy, how those projects set our country up for expectations that ensure that unless we break these beliefs, we'll continually rehearse the drama and the tragedy and the bloodletting that the initial compromises actually produced. So the challenge is of course to move from simple reformism, simple diversity, to really rethinking and recreating new ways of receiving media, new ways of receiving stories, new ways of experiencing and consuming cinema. That's what the challenge is of telling the story of us. And we know now that the connection between what goes on in Hollywood and what goes on in Washington DC is not a 3000 mile distance.


What drove those people on January 6th is partly to defend a narrative that they have been seeing and hearing their entire lives. So when we folks in the storytelling industry here in LA look at what happened on January 6th, shaking heads with a tsk tsk tsk, its important to say, “we're implicated in that story as well. So what are we going to do about it?”


Stay tuned for part two next week, where we’ll delve even deeper into Hollywood’s role, and responsibility, in shaping the Story of Us.


~~


SECTION 4

Ruha Benjamin:

There was actually a first round of images, if you recall, that seemed to show him being chased by the Capitol mobs up the stairs. Then, soon after, there was a second round from a different angle, different set of footage, that was dissected still by still that projected the story that he was actually very savvily diverting the mobs away from the senators. There was a sense of relief that he went from being the tragic negro to the magical negro in a matter of hours with these different angles and stories. In some ways, there was a sense that we had substituted the typical white savior of the Hollywood narratives with a black savior in terms of saving people's lives and saving and really diverting the outcome here. But I think, for me, what really I'm wrestling with is the hunt almost immediately for heroes amidst these villains. That kind of casting of heroes and villains, I think, allows the rest of us observing and witnessing to distance ourselves from the everyday forms of white supremacy that don't have nooses, that don't have confederate flags. It's that distancing in the casting, in the mantra that this is not America.


Kimberle Crenshaw:

I love the frame of casting because it is bringing us into the fact that our story lines are created, we have stock figures. We have conventions in storytelling, and that storytelling is amplified and, in some ways created, in the history of cinema.

And Viet, while we're on that, so in your novel, you write about a character who tries to interrupt the conventional stories, the conventional ways in which America maintains its innocence. So first of all, I'm really curious about what the lessons are from looking at the American gaze not just inside, but outside what, like what you're trying to do there, but also the way in which the implication here is more than a diversity line. It's not like just recast or put more non-white characters at the center because, sometimes, putting non-white characters in the center of a frame that's still deeply infused with these storylines just builds into the problem, not interrupts it.


Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I think we have to be aware of storytelling in two dimensions. One is the story that we see on the screen or on the page. And the other is again the industry that makes stories possible. So on the screen or on the page, one of the most important things we have to confront is that people aren't simple. And countries aren't simple. If we believe in the idea of innocence, then we're shocked, but Hollywood storytellers and anybody who's written stories obviously knows that most people are probably more like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have contradictory aspects of our personalities. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the true test of a fine intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function. And again, American innocence short circuits that ability to function, but people outside of the United States who have been subject to American power find it fairly easy to understand that the United States is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that there's a good parts and bad parts of the country that are fundamentally at odds with each other and are born out of the original conditions of this country. That makes for great stories that if we can confront that kind of a contradiction.







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