American Denial

February 23, 2015

by

Llewellyn Smith , Christine Herbes-Sommers , and Kelly Thomson

Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal's landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, probed deep into America's racial psyche.

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About the Documentary

Follow the story of Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal whose landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, probed deep into the United States’ racial psyche. The film weaves a narrative that exposes some of the potential underlying causes of racial biases still rooted in America’s systems and institutions today.

An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of the Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils [he] saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote his massive 1,500-page investigation of race, now considered a classic.

An American Dilemma challenged the veracity of the American creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all. It argued that critically implicit in that creed — which Myrdal called America’s “state religion” — was a more shameful conflict: white Americans explained away the lack of opportunity for blacks by labeling them inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. Seventy years later, are we still a society living in this state of denial, in an era marked by the election of the nation’s first black president?

American Denial sheds light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans, using archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, as well as research footage, websites, and YouTube films showing psychological testing of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop-and-frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned poverty, the film features a wide array of historians, psychologists, and sociologists who offer expert insight and share their own personal, unsettling stories. The result is a unique and provocative film that challenges our assumptions about who we are and what we really believe.

The Filmmakers

Llewellyn Smith

Llewellyn Smith is co-founder and project director at Blue Spark Collaborative, and created a number of award-winning films with his producing partner Christine Herbes-Sommers at Vital Pictures. Llew was co-executive producer for the PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? — a look at the surprising impact social and economic conditions have in determining health and longevity. Llew also served as director-producer for the Vital Pictures documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness a look at the consequences of race identity politics. In 2012, Llew directed and produced Vital Pictures’ Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street. The film follows community organizing and community building effort over a two-year period in a remarkable low-income Boston neighborhood where he grew up. Other films or series contributions include Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, Race: The Power of an Illusion, and Forgotten Genius.

Christine Herbes-Sommers

Christine Herbes-Sommers is president of Vital Pictures, Inc. and has produced over 100 hours of documentary, dramatic, and educational programming for PBS since 1976. Her film Joan Robinson: One Woman’s Story won the duPont Columbia Award in 1981, and her work over the years has garnered many other awards. At Vital Pictures she partnered with Llew Smith and California Newsreel to develop and produce the award-winning, four-part series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? and was executive producer for the ITVS documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. She is a producer for The Raising of America and is spearheading the Coming of Age in an Aging America project. She and Llew Smith were also producers for the groundbreaking series Race: The Power of an Illusion in 2001. Prior to Vital Pictures, Christine was a staff producer at WGBH/Boston. She has a BA in Political Science from Knox College and a MA from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.

Kelly Thomson

Kelly Thomson (Sly Productions) acted as producer and editor to Vital Pictures’ award-winning films, including Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street, The Raising of America, Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, and Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? She is currently directing on an independent documentary that profiles female leaders in Islamic mysticism, w.t. Shaykha. Her first feature independent documentary, Savage Memory, has screened at festivals, museums, and universities across the globe. She recently served as Artist-in-Residence at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative where she worked with teens to create short films. She has worked on a number of independent films over the past 15 years including Milk, Wild Art, Hotels 4, All Falls Down, A Vote for Choice, and Funeral of the Last Gypsy King. Kelly received her BA from New York University in Religious Studies.

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Do you think racism is an inherent part of the fabric of America? Are all Americans, regardless of race, complicit in the perpetuation of racial biases in our country? How much has changed in race relations since Myrdal conducted his study, and what hasn't changed much at all?

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