American Denial filmmakers Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Kelly Thomson.

Christine Herbes-Sommers Talks about Film on Racial Bias in America, Then and Now

February 23, 2015 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Gunnar Myrdal with Ralph Bunche in Washington D.C., 1942
Gunnar Myrdal with Ralph Bunche in Washington D.C., 1942

American Denial tells the the story of Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal, whose landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, probed deep into the United States’ racial psyche. The documentary weaves a narrative that exposes some of the potential underlying causes of racial biases still rooted in America’s systems and institutions today. The thoughtful and provocative film was quite a few years in the making, and a team effort between filmmakers Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Kelly Thomson. American Denial premieres tonight on PBS at 10 pm [check local listings]. 

Herbes-Sommers spoke with us about how this timely project came about and what she hopes viewers will take away from it. You can also listen to WBGO radio interview director Llew Smith about the film.

How did you all originally come together to collaborate on your previous film and on American Denial?

Llew and I knew one another at WGBH [in Boston] — and enjoyed our ‘corridor’ creative conversations. Like-minded souls, emotionally and intellectually. Larry Adelman of California Newsreel brought us together first for the Race: The Power of an Illusion series (2001), a difficult and challenging three-parter. We more than survived that effort, and went on to collaborate as partners in Vital Pictures. Our talents felicitously complemented each other. Laughter, thoughtfulness, shared values, heartfelt respect for each other, fearlessness, and most importantly a desire to take on hard ideas carried us through Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness and Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? Kelly Thomson joined us for that project and over the course of five years became a key force in creating American Denial. All in all, a wonderful collaboration.

What led you to make American Denial in particular?

This film grew out of the research and making of our Herskovits film. Herskovits was dedicated to exploring questions of African American identity, and in that capacity had hoped to be tapped by the Carnegie Corporation to lead its massive study on Jim Crow racism. Instead, an “outsider,” Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, was chosen.  And in his research Myrdal identified a key and troubling question: how can a nation that espouses such forward thinking, human, and democratic vision as embodied in the American Creed, justify the exploitation of its black population? We knew Myrdal’s question would be salient today. So we set out to explore the mechanisms of denial, or cognitive dissonance — the ways in which we deny or rationalize biases and practices that violate our bedrock beliefs — as well as the terrible historic and contemporary consequences of that denial.

What do you hope people take away from seeing American Denial, if they can only take away one thing?

We hope viewers are gently, thoughtfully enticed to take a demanding journey — to examine their own unconscious bias, ask themselves why they exist, and assess the behavior that emanates from those biases. It may be an emotionally difficult thing for most to do — we may all, black and white, simply want the conversation to go away, to “put it behind us.” American Denial suggests this is more difficult, even impossible, unless we confront  the invisible roots of our own — and as a collective of individuals, society’s — unexamined feelings about “the other” and our own mottled radicalized history.

We hope this film will encourage viewers to reflect on not just how we assiduously blind ourselves to recognizing racial injustice, but also to consider denial as a concept. Our habits of consumption, religious and gender biases – all fall prey to denial.

National Guardsman escorting man around the time of a race riot in East St. Louis, June 6, 1917

American Denial is especially timely, with so many recent events in the headlines involving race and the police, from Ferguson to New York and beyond. How do you think people in those communities can use this film to further discussions about implicit bias?

If we accept the idea that in conversations about race, “white people don’t want to feel more guilty and black people don’t want to feel more angry,” the film offers another entry into the conversation. We’d love to see members of the communities take the Implicit Bias Test [ed: You can take the Implicit Association Test yourself] — noting perhaps first their resistance to taking the test, and then their reactions to the results. And then share this intimate understanding of themselves with others — black and white — and experience how we are all swimming in the same water of messages, biases, behaviors, and internal conflicts. Civil authorities around the country are beginning to pay attention to how implicit bias affects how they police, adjudicate, educate, even dispense medical care. FBI director James Comey has called upon his organization to begin these conversations as it changes its own practices. They would be even more powerful in a community setting.

People who take the Implicit Association Test (which you show in the film) may be taken aback by the results, but it’s a very thoughtful and well-researched tool, too. What would you suggest people do or read or think about after they’re done?

You’re right. Folks could be taken aback. But it’s a good way to begin the journey into their own unconscious attitudes. I think this experience is not an academic one. We can easily read about the nature of the test and psychological literature about denial and cognitive dissonance, as well as the devastating consequences of bias. But it is more difficult to feel it; the test can launch a deeply personal examination. So rather than read — or in addition to it — audiences might first share their experience about it with close family members and friends, at their workplace and in their neighborhoods and communities.

[Clip from American Denial]

Going into making the film, what was your approach to telling this story visually so it didn’t come off as too dry or remote? 

It was wonderful to take on this challenge. First we had a compelling character in Myrdal. Brilliant, charismatic, domineering — his personality, work, and his flawed relationships offer a deeply human narrative through line. Our scholars were anything but dry — passionate, original, compelling. We consciously gave them room to share their own fascinating stories within the larger narrative. Then the editing of James Rutenbeck and the sometimes eccentric, sometimes amusing, often powerful graphic and animation treatments. Historical footage — the brainchild of the talented Kelly Thomson — is original, some never before seen. And two scenes especially pack an emotional wallop: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1948 black doll/white doll test and its 2006 iteration (heartbreaking), and Mahzarin Banaji’s penetrating Implicit [Association] Test.

Could you talk a little bit about the re-enactments you use in the film?

Shooting the photo-reenactment of the kids being frisked by the undercover cops was truly surreal. These are high school kids, many of whom have done some acting, but what was striking is how quickly their demeanor changed and how completely they seemed to realize in their manner, their body language, their improvisation and facial expression kids who were regularly targeted and criminalized by the police.

They went from these easy-going, relaxed young men and women to embodying and expressing a sense of trauma of being disrespected, on their guard, expecting humiliation. And it turned out that a number of them had been stopped and frisked. Regularly. One guy told us that if anything, our stop-and-frisk scene was “kinda chill,” that cops are much more violent and abusive when they search kids at random. But too much violence in the re-enactment might have turned away the audience — it was an unsettling paradox.


Was there anything you wanted to include that didn’t make the cut?

At one point, we developed a visual concept for the film as a graphic novel. Though we created strong artwork for it, it became clear a second narrative line was unnecessary.

What project(s) are you working on next?

I am just finishing a major one-hour documentary for PBS called Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of the NationOnce again a co-production with California Newsreel, the film examines how our social structures deeply imprint our children’s earliest years — and have lasting consequences for them and for society. After that, Coming of Age in Aging America — about what it means to be an aging society, not just on an individual level but for society and future generations. We are heading into principal photography shortly. Then we have lovely small projects on deck that allow visual experimentation. We’re very lucky.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

We have two signs in our office: “Though Shalt Not Whine” and “Be Kind. Be Brave.” Apart from that, our advice would be: know that like most work, much of filmmaking is just putting one step in front of the other. Eventually, there will be joys of surprising moments in production, a well-crafted edit, the triumph of a well-turned sentence … and eventually engaging with audiences. Watch a lot of different films – mindfully. And understand that if this is the path you’ve chosen, you will likely not ever own a house in the Hamptons.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.