The Big Conversation: The Story of Us
- Hi, my name is Adam Piron. I'm from the Kiowa and Mohawk tribes. I'd like to extend my gratitude to the Ute Tribal Nation, the traditional caretakers of the land on which the Sundance Film Festival takes place every year. And to all Indigenous people from where you're joining us from, welcome, and enjoy the show. (upbeat music) - Hello, I'm Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia law schools, and a Sundance board member. I'm delighted today to be speaking with four distinguished thought leaders, thought leaders that can help us grapple with the connections between these three last Wednesdays in January: Wednesdays that shook our nation to its very core.
And the aftermath of such a tragedy, we'll be examining the implications for the storytelling industry of these shocking events. So the first three Wednesdays of 2021 involve first a siege of the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow an election. Second, the impeachment of the president for inciting that seditious mob. And lastly, the inauguration of Joe Biden and a Capitol guarded against its own citizens by thousands of soldiers. That this all happened in the United States of America should prompt the same intense self-reflection and institutional accountability, that many underwent in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing last summer. And as Keri Putnam noted in her opening remarks to this Festival, in a moment when the media landscape is more polarized and consolidated than ever, we see a lot of content that reinforces the status quo.
We need stories to change that. Although we at Sundance could not have possibly planned a discussion prompted by an attack on the citadel of American democracy, Festival director Tabitha Jackson quickly mobilized to find space for this essential conversation. Now we'll begin by noting that this conversation isn't simply a moment of respectful reflection about something that happened far away from what goes on at this Festival and in this industry. What we're witnessing is largely about the reality, creating power of stories, even stories quite apart from discernible facts.
Our Capitol was ransacked based on lies that are now forming a new normal, even as we speak. And we would be taking the easy route to see only Trump lies about the election as the precipitating factors in this crisis. The fact that this threat is a very threat to the existence of our country and in turn is framed by such familiar storylines should tell us that there's something distinctive, something cultural, something historically American going on here.
From the "make America great again" conviction that motivated thousands of Americans to threaten the lives of the second- and third-highest officeholders in the nation to the equally anguished "this is not who we are" response that insists that what holds us together in peaceful coexistence is our commitment to American ideals and upholding the rule of law. All of these responses tell us that storytelling is at the core of what we're looking at today. So for those of us drawn to Sundance, the power of film and storytelling is not new, but the idea that the industry's role in industrializing narratives of American exceptionalism and creating an ideological avatar fit to play on all sides of this unfolding drama, that is a more challenging conversation.
Diving fully into the implications of storytelling takes us beyond mere diversity. It takes us to the very conventions and foundational innovations of the trade. So we want to ask, how have the tools of Hollywood been used metaphorically and actually to deliver this history along the storylines of American exceptionalism? What are the singsong lines that everyone here can rally around, and what are the discordant ones that virtually nobody knows? What does it mean to say that our democracy has been tested but never buckled when that's put up against the forgotten histories of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma? What is the score that turns raw footage of mob aggression into patriotic defense of our cherished ideals? We want to ask what the conventions of American narrative are that queued up this moment, the moment now followed by expectations of reconciliation, just as we near the ending credits? So the questions go to the core, the founding principles of American cinema to this very day, a massive tribute to D. W. Griffith sits inside Hollywood, often called the father of American filmmaking. His "Birth of a Nation" brought dazzling technology to a 50-year campaign to settle the memory of the Civil War and to valorize the orgy of violence that ended by racial democracy in the South.
And as Griffith himself said in 1915, "The real nation has only existed the last 15 or 20 years, for there can be no union without sympathy and oneness of sentiment." So what does it mean when a founding document for American cinema is a spectacular, heroic narrative of white supremacy, political terrorism, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan? We think about Griffith as one of the founding fathers of this form of American storytelling. What is his legacy? What is the equivalent of this 1619 Project for Hollywood? It was the literary titan James Baldwin who once remarked, "The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.
History is present in all that we do." So to understand how we got here, we need to turn inward and understand the story of us. So the panelists you'll here from today have long been attempting to tell that fuller story of us, of who we are. These are thinkers steeped in critical understanding of our history who say and say again, "This is America." Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of the best-selling memoir "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption." He was portrayed by Michael B. Jordan
in a 2019 film of the same name, and has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court. David Blight is professor of American history at Yale University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom," which is being adapted into a new movie by Higher Ground Productions. His recent New York Times op-ed titled "How Trumpism May Endure" builds on his essential award-winning book "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory." Viet Thanh Nguyen is professor of American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. His best-selling book "The Sympathizer" won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and he frequently contributes to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
His recent op-ed for The Washington Post discusses the reason that South Vietnamese flag flew during the Capitol riot. The sequel to "The Sympathizer," "The Committed," hit shelves or post offices on March 2. And lastly, Ruha Benjamin is professor of American studies at Princeton University. She's the founding director of the IDA B. WELLS Just Data Lab and author of two recent books, "People's Science," and "Race After Technology." She writes, teaches, and speaks widely about the relationship between innovation and inequity, knowledge and power, race and citizenship, and health and justice.
Welcome, all. So we have been talking and decided that we were going to do this as a bit of a round table first by laying out some of the images that resonated with everyone in this moment. So I want to go to Bryan first and ask you to share an image or a moment that stands out for you as a particularly salient image that juxtaposes the story that animated those who were trying to take over the Capitol with the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are. - Well, thanks. It was absolutely for me, the noose, and a scaffold around the noose.
It just kind of in a very powerful way, spoke to what happens to a country that fails to acknowledge its shame. What happens in a nation where storytellers and media and cultural forces don't require us to deal with our shame. That symbol is connected to the lynching of thousands of African Americans.
It triggered the mass migration of over 6 million Black people. It shaped the political demographic landscape of this nation. It's still traumatizes African Americans. I can't think of another image that represents the shame of America in the 20th century more than that one, and that it was embraced by those who went there says a lot about what we have failed to do to confront our real story. - And I also have to say, I was shocked, Bryan, by how speechless, many of the commentators are when they saw that noose.
Like, "Is it serious? What is it for?" It was almost like it just didn't compute for them. I was shocked by their shock about the noose, which in some ways, you know, clearly underscores the point you're making. This is something that has no deep historical resonance with many people, or at least the resonance it has doesn't seem to fit within the storyline that was playing out there. Viet, what stuck out for you? - Well, I wasn't shocked by the fact that we see the manifestation of these forces, because as we've been reiterating, this is actually who the country is- this is a substantial part of the country- but I certainly was shocked at the sight of people storming the Capitol, which I didn't imagine would happen this soon, but there was a personal note for me, which we've seen this image, the Vietnamese flag flying there, and my first thought was "Why are we involved, the Vietnamese people?" And there is an alignment here of the lost causes of the cCnfederacy and also a nationalism, a radicalized nostalgia for the way things were; it must have been better at some point in the past, but for Vietnamese people, their historical experience has nothing to do with what's been happening in the United States. But we see here, a form of radicalized nostalgia of Vietnamese people, which aligns with, like, to kind of see... with anti-Blacknes,s
with what's strong, and populism. And I think the Vietnamese are actually not unique This is where this is important for me, outside of my own personal experience. There were people who were not white at this attack at the Capitol, and Trumpism has found a significant base of support among some populations of people of color.
And we have to ask why that's happening- what is the power of the narrative of Trumpism and the lost cause and "taking back our country"- that is seductive not just for white, kind of white people, but also for certain kinds of people of color in this country as well. - And I want to put a pin in just that, because we want to talk about what I think to some observers is that curiosity and perhaps even a challenge, how can we talk about this January 6th event, and the politics and the narratives that led to it in the same register as we talk about white supremacy, when there were obviously other people of color involved in it. So unpacking how narrative functions now white supremacy exists within American narratives is an important part of our conversation. David, what about you? - Well, Kim, first of all, thanks; it's a great honor to be on this panel with this amazing group of writers and thinkers. Well, for me, it was that guy with the Confederate flag inside the Capitol.
The first night I saw it, I had to really sit down and just do a double-take. It was a sort of a, "My God, they're carrying the Confederate flag inside the U.S. Capitol! That has never happened." But over time, here, I've had to look at that over and over and over on panels, but also it's everywhere. And now I really want... whenever I see it now,
I think, "What's in their heads? What's in that guy's head? What stories are rumbling around in their heads?" They're taking a new lost cause; they're probably taking a new lost cause, Trumpism, in the U.S. Capitol, seizing it, desecrating it, killing people, but what beliefs are running around in their heads? Is it like the original Confederate lost cause a set of beliefs, most of which are based on lies that are rummaging around in the past in search of some history? What stories are in their heads, and how did they get there, and most difficult of all, what are we going to do about it to blunt those stories and to try to get rid of them? That man with the Confederate flag represents hundreds and hundreds of people that day. And it appears millions of people who don't want to live in this country of pluralism, don't want to live in this country, of free and democratic elections that don't turn out their way. They don't want to live with the America that has become this country. And what are we going to do about that? - "What stories are in their heads and how did they get there?" could be perhaps the subtitle of this conversation.
Ruha, what stands out for you? - The image that stands out for me is that of the Black officer, Eugene Goodman. 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. And 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 savily diverting the mobs away from the senators.
And 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. And 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 this the hunt almost immediately for heroes amidst these villains. So 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. And it's that distancing in the casting; the legacies in the mantra that "this is not America."
- I love that the frame of casting, right, because it is bringing us into the fact that our storylines are created. We have sort of stock figures, we have conventions in storytelling, and that storytelling is amplified and, in some ways, created in the history of cinema. So let's pick up these questions of what is the dominant story? What is it that is circulating around? What's in their heads, as David put it? And we're talking about the heads, both of the stories that "this was a defense of America, the defense of our America," as well as the counters to that, you know, "our America is bigger than that. And it is more inclusive than that." There are two, you know, sort of different stories. They look like they're opposing stories, but in some ways, they share more commonalities than might immediately meet the eye.
So Bryan, I want to come back to you to talk about the default storyline and the necessity to challenge that default storyline. So how is it that, you know, some of the stories like Wilmington and Tulsa and so many others have faded so overwhelmingly from our collective memory, and what are the consequences of that? - Well, in many ways, I don't think we've ever created narratives about Wilmington and Tulsa in much of our history that has 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, it is this 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 it to the millions of Native people who were dying.
And we use that narrative of 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. And in most countries, there were societies with slaves.
America actually became a slave society. We created a narrative that made slavery about race. And the great evil of slavery wasn't the involuntary servitude, it wasn't a 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 evolved. And 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 failed... 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, drown, tortured, tormented, lynch. 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 into lawlessness. And 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. And 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. So after the civil rights era, when we pass the voting rights law and the civil rights law, we have the same phenomenon happening that we had after the civil war: retreat from enforcement. And then we created this new institution of mass incarceration, overincarceration, and 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. So 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 thin is powerful. When you go to Berlin, there's a reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. You couldn't, I don't believe, succeed too long by talking about "make Germany great again," by invoking some romanticized vision of...
(indistinct) It would not be acceptable to the world to have that. There are no Adolph 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. And it was even in the storytelling of civil rights that we had to create white saviors to kind of get those stories palatable.
So I think that's the challenge that we face. We've got to confront this, and that's why I believe, you know, we're really at a moment where we need an era of truth and justice. And that's the challenge that I think awaits this country. And it's the reason why we had that explosion of lawlessness and mob violence on the 6th of January.
- And I'm so glad Bryan, that you named alternatives and also brought cinema into it, right? So 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. So, you know, that was very much part of "Birth of a Nation." And we see its influence stretching a century and beyond the moment the narrative was made into an experience that people think they actually witnessed.
I mean, that's what the technology of film did at that moment. So we're looking at a situation where the continuity of the narratives and the technology of their production and experience are woven together in ways that haven't, I think, been interrogated sufficiently. I want to bring David in here, you know, as well.
So 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 cause-ism in American politics now, particularly as it played out January 6th? - Well, thanks, hard-to-follow Bryan. I love the way Bryan can capture so much history in single sentences. I wish I could do it.
Anyway, you know, to the original idea he brought up, this broad master American narrative, that we are a people of progress, always improving, always solving our problems. I think it was Richard Hofstetter, at least that's who's given credit for it, who once said, "The problem with the way some people do American history is 'America was born perfect, and then launched his career of improvement.'" - I love that, 1776 commission, right? - Exactly. - That's current.
- That's why that 1776 project- Well, it's one of the reasons it's to be denounced and avoided, but anyway, you know, 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-really, it wasn't, but the closest thing we ever had to a truth and justice commission where the Ku Klux Klan hearings, as Brian knows in 1871, the Grant administration, to its credit when, after the Klan, especially in South Carolina, but in other Southern states as well. And 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.
And 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 3,000 indictments, about 2,000 others had their charges dropped, and this was for the massive level of tortures and murders and burnings, and so on done by the Klan from roughly 1868 to 1871, 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, 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 the court dockets were just so overloaded that they couldn't have an assessed 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. And just a year after, that was the worst massacre of Reconstruction in Colfax, Louisiana.
About 50 Blacks were murdered in cold blood trying to vote. And then another, roughly 300, in that Red River region were killed in the wake of it. And 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 costs. In fact, at blue-gray reunions, which were reunions of soldiers, these were not easy to do at first, but after, 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." I mean, just think about what that means.
And 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 lack 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, at its 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, and 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 aides, "No, no, sir. You have to go. You don't understand, you have to go." So he comes, he shows up, he gives a speech in a giant tent to all these veterans. And what does he call the Civil War? He calls it the quarrel forgotten just the quarrel forgotten. And he left them with this image of all these glorious old men looking into each other's eyes and finding love again.
Anyway, you know, 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. And that's our task in front of us right now, and it isn't going to be any easier this time than it was 100 years ago. - You know, as for someone who can sum up history in amazing detail, David, obviously your work does that. I also am just moved by the last part you mentioned, because you've got Woodrow Wilson, basically amplifying what Griffith says "Birth of a Nation" is all about.
As I said earlier, there can be no union without sympathy and oneness of sentiment. Oneness of sentiment about what that Reconstruction had been a mistake that racial hierarchies or real, the good government, basically requires the exclusion of people who are not qualified to participate in it. And this becomes enormously popularized, industrialized, spread, made to be just truth through "Birth of a Nation," through film language. So this is a place where technology and etiology come together. So Ruha, let me bring you in on this one. What should we make of this historical moment? After all, Woodrow Wilson is the person who said, "'Birth of a Nation' was like history written in fire."
It was an achievement, it was accomplishment partly because of the skill of telling a lie that Griffith was able to you know make happen. Are there, in this moment, analogies that tell us we are going around the bramble bush again? Absolutely, and media technologies are just one sort of niche of technologies that both reflect and reproduce the racist status quo. 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 an impact on every area of our lives.
And so it's especially pernicious in the decisions, consequential decisions that we are not even privy to, whether we get a certain treatment or not at the hospital, whether we are paroled or not by a judge, whether we are admitted into a school or not, whether we get that home mortgage, a lot, not all of the decisions about our lives are being mediated by automated systems that are this larger umbrella of technology that, in so many ways, both reflects and reproduces the racist status quo. 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. And so 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 6th, the one other sort of 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. And what I mean by that is that with the proliferation of social media, people aren't just consuming, but producing stories.
And one of the interesting sort of genres in the aftermath of January 6th was the hashtag #noflylist, which were initially videos of Capitol rioters who were being arrested and pulled off of flights or off of other transportation, booking 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.
And so 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've 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 protestors?" So 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 really poor substitute for a more sustained reckoning with what actually went down. - Yeah, and as is often the case, social justice-minded uses of technology try to keep upright, and try to intervene, 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. And so Viet, I want to come to you again on the question of January 6th, and "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? - Well, I think certainly what happened was that the literal inability of people to wear masks is also a revelation of what's behind the mask, so many of these people and their followers who believe 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. Bryan brought up the issue that genocide and slavery are fundamental to this country. And David brought up the issue that America is contradictorily both perfect and 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 of these things that have happened in our history." So when something like the Capitol attack happens, our reflex is to say, or reflex of many people is to say, "This is not who we are" because we're shocked by this kind of revelation. And yet throughout American history, we are as a nation perpetually shocked every time something contradicts our methodology 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. Well, we don't need an official ministry of propaganda. Unlike, let's say, China or the former Soviet Union, because we have Hollywood where liberal values oftentimes intersect with dominant American values. And I think "Birth of a Nation" perfectly exemplifies this kind of function that Hollywood plays. So 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 to the rescue of a nation to fending off hoards of colored people and privileging white heroes and made that the template of many, many Hollywood blockbusters.
And so 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 a second time in memory. And 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.
And it illustrates the power of American storytelling in the Hollywood, in that Hollywood has the power to write history. And so even though the United States lost the 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 and very central to American storytelling. So when we try to contest this idea of American innocence, you have to think about the power of storytelling and who has access to that power. Hollywood is certainly an industrial mode of storytelling, and all the various inequalities of American society and the legacies of structural violence and bracelet have embedded in the way that Hollywood operates. And we have to contest both the operation of power and how it is that we tell stories.
- And Viet, while we're on that, in your novel, you write about a character who tries to interrupt the conventional stories, the conventional ways in which America maintains its innocence, along with the framing of "Birth of a Nation" as a consistent frame through which the characters save and come to the rescue of what's seen as deeply American, the innocence and the valor. So first of all, I'm really curious about what the lessons are from looking at the American guys, not just inside, but outside what you were trying to do there, but also the way in which the implication here is more than a diversity lie. It's not just recast or putting more non-white characters at the center, 'cause sometimes putting non-white characters in the center of a frame that's still deeply infused with the storylines just builds into the problem, not interrupts it. - 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 are 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 you know, 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 that'll find 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 very easy to understand that the United States is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
That there's good parts and bad parts of the country that are fundamentally at odds with each other and are born out of the original condition of this country. That makes for great stories that we can... confront that kind of a contradiction. Now, the other problem is that the industries of storytelling art are a little bit different. So it's very difficult to do something like change in direction of Hollywood or changing the direction of a blockbuster when a blockbuster costs $100 or $200 million to produce. And that's part of the tragedy or the comedy that I outlined in my novel.
But we can see that when people who are outsiders try to operate within Hollywood, even with the best of intentions, sometimes they get either blocked by this kind of industrial power, this inequality, or they also get seduced by the power of basic American narratives. So "Apocalypse Now," for example, great anti-war movie, but it's a movie that returned Americans to the center of the story. They would rather occupy the center of the story as the hefty heroes and as the villains, if that's what it takes. And then Spike Lee makes "Da Five Bloods," and I'm a huge admirer of Spike Lee, but basically what that basically does is to insert Black men into that very same story, to take up the position of the antihero.
At the expense of the Vietnamese and at the expense of a certain kind of complexity of history. And so the power of that narrative, of the Vietnam War, of putting Americans at the center of the expense of everybody else, is the narrative's seductive, not just for white people and white men, but also for other peoples of color in the United States as well. - So I wanna build off of that the what gets centered and what gets marginalized and come back to you, Bryan. So the rallying cry of "make America great again," we can't quite call that a dog whistle, 'cause, a lot of people can hear what that is.
We've talked about the silences that facilitate this, but building on Viet, how has Hollywood contributed to this notion that our greatness is behind us? - Well, I think it's a failure to tell the whole story to complete the story. I mean, I think that Hollywood broadly and filmmakers around the world have done a really tremendous service, positive service, by exploring the Holocaust. There are hundreds of films about the Holocaust, and each of them bring to light aspects of that horrific period that continue to deepen our appreciation of all about that era that was tragic.
And it makes all of us commit to say "never again." And you don't have to be Jewish; you don't have to have been alive. You have a consciousness about what happened during that horrific era, that if you understand it, you're motivated to say "never again."
We have not done that same kind of storytelling about the plight of Indigenous people in this country. We have not done that same kind of storytelling about the horrors of slavery. So most people don't know anything about the domestic slave trade, and about how half of all Black people were separated from their children and their families, the drama in separation, and it's all there. But no one has been willing to tell that story. You and I were high school kids when "Roots" came out, and in some parts of the world, like, this whole transformation... I think we both participated in high school essay contest, "What does 'Roots' mean to me," because it was so revelatory.
And I think a lot of people thought this would be the beginning of a new era of storytelling where we understood the richness of all that had happened. And it wasn't the beginning of a new era. It was a single event, and we didn't have another 50 years of storytelling about that period.
And I think it's just really an indictment of the institutions that shape storytelling that we don't understand what happened in the first half of the 20th century. We don't have a lot of stories about- - And what's the why of that, Bryan, because you are so right. Like, remember how "Roots" was everyone, it was the original water-cooler moment; like, everybody watched "Roots."
And one could tell the difference in the conversations about race and about American society that were prompted by this interrogation of the past that most people either didn't know about, or Black people in particular didn't want to talk about it. And you're right, 50 years, like nothing really grew out of that maybe until "12 Years a Slave." So what is the why? You've talked a little bit about the fear, the caution: What is it that makes it so unlikely that American cinema engages these questions? - Yeah, well, I do think it's about power. That is the people who do truth-telling, and other societies have to have enough power to advance that, right? And Denzel Washington made "The Great Debaters," which was a movie about lynching. But it wasn't going to be something that a lot of other people were going to do. "12 Years a Slave" is another good example.
I don't think the people who have power have been motivated to do this kind of courageous storytelling for three reasons. One, they don't think they're gonna make money. And for a lot of people, money is the guiding principle. Two, they're not required to do it. American audiences in the mainstream haven't been pushed to confront it either.
So they're not demanding it. And three, I don't think they recognize how being silent can sometimes be just as dangerous, be just as damaging and detrimental, as being the kind of "Birth of a Nation" storytellers. I mean, it was the silence of cultural institutions in Germany in the 1930s.
And that really led to the horrors of that era. It was the silence of story makers. And so I think that's gotta be it. And so what we have to do is we have to really push... Things like "Law and Order." I mean we had a whole generation grow up with these stories.
"All police officers are beautiful, they're kind, they're smart. They have a few issues, but those are the people you trust." For Black folks who are menaced and targeted and often pursued wrongly, it's a false narrative.
You could not create that series with input from a substantial part of the Black community. And what you and I know, Kim, is that it does... what we've learned is that you can't even educate yourself away from the menace of Blackness.
I graduated from Harvard Law School the same time you did, went to Atlanta and got pulled out of my car by the police, where they threatened to blow my brains out. And it took all of my skill just to survive. And that story has to be told if we're going to understand what we're dealing with. I think this is where new voices are going to be critical, it's going to be important, but I think we have to see that we have an obligation to repair. I mean, in corporate law, iif a company violates, does some damage, they get sued. They can't just say, "Oh, I'm not going to do that anymore."
They have to repair the damages, and then torts and corporations in tax, we have a framework for damages. Most of the law school curriculum that you and I went through was about damages, about remedy. So I don't think it's enough for storytellers to say, "Okay, we'll have to do better."
No, you are obligated now to repair the damage you did with a half-century of stories about Native people that perpetuated these ideas, that they were not fully human. You have an obligation to repair the damage you did by making hundreds of films about the mid 19th century that contributed to this idea that Black people are not as good as white people, and the same ways that we have to repair the damage we've done around domestic violence and a whole host of issues connected to a lot of things in our society. And I just think when you understand that you are obligated as an institution to repair first, to tell the truth, and then repair, that's when you begin to find your energy. I think truth and justice can liberate you can empower you. And that's the thing I believe. I just believe there's something better waiting for us.
There's a whole catalog of films and stories waiting to be told that will not only enrich and entertain but will move this nation to something that feels more like freedom, feels more like justice, feels more like equality, but we have to be bold if we're going to achieve that. - And so, maybe this is a moment where we could build in just a little bit of levity with respect to, so what would it mean? What are the cautionary tales that we want to be able to just hand that about how that responsibility can be taken up, let's say better than it has in the past. So I teach a course at UCLA called "Race Representation in the Law." The point of the departure of that is that storytelling about race in America is more impactful and more constitutive of what we sometimes call race relations, and what actually happens in the legal and the political arenas. I mean, more Americans know what happened in the last episode of "The Bachelor" than they know about any Supreme Court case or executive order, even though the latter directly impacts their lives the next day.
So learning the language of film learning about its history, its racial grammar, it gives us a deeper literacy about America. So one of the highlights of the course is we do our own Oscars at the end, and we give out awards for best performance as a predictable trope or character or storyline in cinema's ability to represent race in America. So I'll say Atticus Finch, he wins every year in the role of great white savior, but Gene Hackman's character in "Mississippi Burning" he gives Atticus Finch a run for his money every time. So I am curious about what it is about the ego of viewing audiences that necessitates stories about racial power when they are told to be told through a saving white figure. That's my constant question.
But I'm curious about all of the favorite tropes, conventions, characters storylines, that you all see as part of Hollywood's rare forays into these forbidden environs. So why don't I come back to you, Viet, on that. What could be a category in our award ceremony? - Well, I recommend that everybody read Charles Yu's novel "Interior Chinatown," which just won the National Book Award in fiction because it's written as a screenplay and it tackles exactly the issue you're talking about. It's a novel about a bunch of Asian American actors who cannot escape the roles that Hollywood has historically given to them as characters in a Chinatown kind of setting. So that if you're an Asian American and there's a TV show like "Law and Order," there's always going to be an episode where the cops go and do Chinatown.
So "Interior Chinatown" is about Asian Americans who only play extras with no names: the Asian guy, Asian girl. So that would be our whole category. We would never get to the Atticus Finch. We just get to be the Asian waiter or the Oriental gangster or the Chinese prostitute, and so on and so forth. And every year there has to be Oscars for us in those particular categories.
(indistinct) If you're a minority in American society, whatever the kind, racial, sexual, whatever, you live in a condition of narrative scarcity, which means that almost none of the stories are about you. So when something comes along like "Crazy Rich Asians," all the Asians freaked out because like, "Oh my God, it was a story about us." And if you're part of the majority, you live in narrative plenitude; almost all the stories are about you.
So if a bad movie comes along, you don't care because there's a thousand other movies, all about people exactly like you. And so part of what it means to be equal in this country is for those of us who've lived in narrative scarcity is to have the opportunities for narrative plenitude. As Bryan said, many stories about our experiences, so that if one story fails, it doesn't matter. And that we have the opportunity to have the equal right to be mediocre, just like every other American. When we tell our stories, we don't feel the pressure that we have to represent the race, represent the community, and try to win this Oscar: we can just average, like everybody else. - Wonderful. Ruha, what category would you propose?
- First of all, I love that idea of narrative plenitude. I love that, Viet. And so I think for me, the counterpart of the white savior would be Uncle Tom. And so I would give the best depiction of an Uncle Tom to let's say Samuel L. Jackson in "Django." And on a more serious note, again-- - He slayed that movie.
(crosstalk drowns speaker) - He did. I'll just follow Viet's example by just sharing, adding to the levity, but also the kind of closing thought from me is really putting a finer point on this idea that imagination as this even more broad than storytelling imagination is a contested field of action. And it's not an ephemeral afterthought that we have the luxury to dismiss or romanticize. Imagination is a resource, a battleground, an input and output of technologies and social order.
And so I think we need to acknowledge that most people are forced to live inside someone else's imagination. And one of the things we have to come to grips with is how the nightmares that we see, many people are forced to endure are really the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, happiness, you know, profits, social control. And so racism is among other axes of domination that helps to produce a fragmented imagination where you have misery for some and monopoly for others. And so the take-home for me is that for those of us who want to construct a different social reality, grounded in justice and joy one, we need to take imagination seriously, but we can't only critique the underside, the nightmares, we also have to wrestle with the deep investments, the desire even that many people have for social domination, which goes back to the Capitol that this is not a consensus, many people want to uphold and maintain the existing social order.
And so we have to really wrestle and reckon with that reality. - Yes, right, and wrestling with that. A reality is also wrestling against the convention, the expectation that the wrestling, and not be too congested that there's a, we that can be trusted to uphold some of the basic commitments against which we're telling the story of need to interrogate and to interrupt. And David, on the question of category, I guess I wanna come to you with a frame about what kind of narrative conventions should qualify as a category in our awards. You mentioned earlier and you've written about race, and in "Reunion," there does seem to be this expectation at the end of any film that tries to deal with this that it works out in the end; that we know who the racists are. They're the bad cops; they're the bad people. In the end,
we can reconcile. So what do we make of this expectation, and what are the dangers of storytelling that bow to that expectation by storytelling and Hollywood and storytelling in our culture? - Well, my category for you will be the either best or worst redemptive ending. I mean, Americans demand redemptive endings, right? We go to a movie and if it didn't redeem him in the end, we complain.
Well, life doesn't always work out that way. (indistinct) One of my worries about this Douglass film in the works, which I have pretty much absolutely no control over, it's in the hands of screenwriters, is where are they going to take this? Douglass makes your perfect hero in American history, if that's the story you want to tell, or he can make a really complicated, sometimes dark, sometimes tragic, and sometimes amazingly heroic figure. It just depends on when you look and which box you take him out of, and where this film chooses to end has everything to do with it. If you end with him advising Lincoln and at the second inaugural and honoring Lincoln, well, that's one thing. But if you end in his dark times of later Reconstruction or into the 1870s and 80s, my God, you know, when he's got a massive extended family all depending on him, and he has 21 grandchildren, 14 of them died in their infancy.
I mean, you've got a man trying to control a universe he can't control. I want the film to go there; again, I have no control over it. And one thing we learned early- - I think you need Bryan's T-shirt.
Bryan, what was your T-shirt? - My T-shirt was going to be "don't judge a book by the movie," fortunately. - So maybe you might judge it; just so it's in your closet; just in case you might have to go ahead, finish your point. - Well, also, I was just gonna say back to to "Roots." I was a high school teacher when "Roots" played in Flint, Michigan, in a very large urban high school, about half Black and half white. And I have to tell you, I mean, it's an education for all of us. Here we were for the first time teaching a course called "Black America," a Black history course, and I got the library to buy John Hope Franklin's "From Slavery to Freedom," but here we were with Black and white kids, basically seeing slavery on television every night, night after night.
And they'd never seen it before. We had police officers in the hallways because there was serious concern. These kids were walking into school arguing and fighting over Kunta Kinte. And we were all trying to just keep things harnessed, but it was an education for all of us.
My God, what a story that this has tapped into. Whatever Alex Haley may have made up didn't matter at that time. And then beyond that, over time, you'll always want filmmakers to take history seriously; that I learned a long time ago.
The films aren't made for historians; they're not made for serious writers; either they're made for the public, but it is possible, it is possible to take real thinking human beings somewhere with the past, and my own approach, it doesn't matter what my approach would be, but the thing we cannot face, whether it's in Hollywood screenwriting or it's in even our work, is this idea of tragedy. The tragic mode is just something particularly Americas do not deal with, we don't like the idea. Tragedy isn't just pessimism, it isn't just darkness. It's about human fate.
It's about our condition. Why do we love Shakespeare? I mean, why does, why can't the world still not get enough of Shakespeare? Well, partly it's the comedies and the wild characters he created, but it's those incredible tragedies that tell us so much about ourselves, whether it's "Othello" or "King Lear" or the others. And yet the movies seem to, by and large, and there are brilliant people all over the film industry, we all know that, and I've met some of them. But as a form, as this most powerful medium of all, it seems wedded to this idea that a story must have a redemption. It might, but by God, rip my heart out first, 'cause that's the way real history is, that's the way real-life... Rip my heart out,
and then you find some way to give it back to me if you want, but that's the way real history happened. And it's the way life happened. - Yeah, so Bryan, I don't want to end this part without getting your category for our award ceremony and ask you as you think about that. Is it possible to tell stories in a way that puts us on a new trajectory toward justice? - I think it is. I remember in the '70s and '60s when women would call the police after being victimized by their spouses, the police would show up, they would not arrest the man.
We did not actually have a perspective on domestic violence that recognize the horror of domestic violence. And I remember this movie, Farrah Fawcett Majors, "The Burning Bed," and it was actually a powerful story because she took on the role of a survivor of domestic violence. And all of a sudden, the voices of women who had been victims of domestic violence began to be lifted up.
And where we've gone on that issue since then to today is not where we need to be, but we've gone a great distance. 10 years ago, athletes and prominent people who were accused of domestic violence didn't have to fear the consequences that you see today. That's because our narrative about the hards of domestic violence have shifted, and the law reflects that mothers against drunk driving did the same thing about the law around driving while intoxicated. The response to that is radically different because of those stories.
And they used advertising and commercials to get voices out that radically changed that perspective. So I know it's possible, and we've seen the same thing on issues of sexuality. I don't think we would have won the case on marriage equality but for a decade of storytelling that really helped this country reconcile itself prepare itself for something that seemed as radical as marriage equality seemed 20 years ago.
So we absolutely can do this. We have lots of examples of doing it, but we're not going to succeed in doing it if we continue to do the fearful thing, the kind of stuff that David is talking about. If we continue to only do it incrementally, I mean, I think about a film like "Hidden Figures"... I love that people learned about Kathleen Johnson and the extraordinary contribution of Black women in the NASA. I love that, but I'm just kind of pained by the scene where Kevin Costner, who goes to the bathroom in the heat, physically knocks down the segregation sign because he's mad about his work, not being advanced because his worker can't be with him.
And when we make anti-racism only a tool of something else, we don't succeed. Anti-racism has to be its goal; it has to be an end in and of itself. Equality has to be an end in and of itself.
We have to stop reducing it to stories as being a means to something else that we all want. We have to create an America where we all want equality, where we all want justice, where we all want freedom. And when you make it a subplot that only white people can advance.
And when you do it in this kind of incremental way or this kind of functional way, we don't get where we're trying to go. We have seen the power of cinema radically move our consciousness on a host of issues. We just haven't applied that technique, those powers, those skills on these issues of American remembrance.
And I just want to echo what David said. I think part of the political problem we have in this country is that we've got a political culture where nobody's prepared to say "I'm sorry." We've made apology almost un-American in our storytelling.
And just like tragedy. And two, we create narratives where we make apology cathartic and empowering. You get stronger when you're willing to say "I'm sorry." That's the challenge that we have to meet in this moment, create a generation of politicians who, when they make a mistake or say something bad, have the courage to stand up and say "I'm sorry," and not get crushed for that, but actually feel strong. You show me two people who've been in love with one another for 50 years, I'll show you two people who've learned how to apologize to one another when they don't navigate something the right way.
It's how you build love. It's how you build health. It's how you build a strong relationship. And I think our storytellers have to reinforce that collectively in the political space and the stories that we tell about the true story of us, about the true history of America, to be willing, to tell the truth, to be willing to create spaces for us to reckon, apologize, and then repair the damage that has to be repaired.
- So you've said a mouthful right there for us, Bryan. Golly, this is a great conversation. We have a sense of moving forward, we know David, what your hopes are, Bryan, the idea of thinking about this relationship as a marriage, I think is a beautiful one. I'm gonna just ask really quickly, Viet, if this is a time capsule as a writer about all of us, what would you direct us to do or how to make a practice out of storytelling from this moment? - Well, I think as a storyteller, we have to follow our passions and our beliefs, but we also have to have the capacity to listen to others, listen to our own critics. I mean, this is something that we, as a nation have been wrestling with the demand on the part of some people to tell only one simplified version of the American story. And they hear criticisms coming from other people; they say, well, love it, or leave it, take the country as it is.
So there's a need for storytellers supposed to have conviction, but also to have an openness of heart and a mind and the intellect to embrace others in to listen to their questions and their challenges. And the more institutionalized we get, the more power we accrue, the harder it is to hear these other voices and these other critiques. And that's probably especially true in a place like Hollywood, with so much power and money and tradition is involved. And we're all here to try to make storytelling both a more open enterprise, but also a creative enterprise that is more powerful because it embraces the most of tragedies in the complexities of these American stories. - And Ruha, you get the last word looking to the future. We began with the new technology in filming, and how it bedded racism and white supremacy.
We're in that, what do we need to be thinking about looking to the future of current new technologies? - Well, I would say that any way forward, and we're talking here about a profession that is all about creating immersive and moving perform