American Denial

American Denial

  • BY Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Kelly Thomson | IN Race & Ethnicity
    Premiered February 23, 2015

About the Film

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. MORE

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, Producer/Director

Group headshot of American Denial filmmakers Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Kelly Thomson.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, Producer

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 Americaproject. 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, Producer

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. LESS

Film Credits

A Film by
Llewellyn Smith

Christine Herbes-Sommers
Llewellyn Smith
Kelly Thomson

James Rutenbeck

Supervising Producer
Wendy Riseborough

Line Olsson

Llewellyn Smith

Associate Producer
Jeremy Wolf

Additional Editing
Kelly Thomson

Director of Photography
Tom Fahey

Reenactment Photography
Parker Digital Imaging
Zachary Stuart

Additional Camera
Richard Chisolm
Dakin Henderson

Music by
OBT Music
P. Andrew Willis

Sound Mixers
Clint Bramesco
Dwayne Dell

Production Assistants
Delilah Dasilva
Marc Elzey
Lucas Frank
Colleen Kelly
Akeem Mooltrey
Lucia Nhamo

Additional Archival Research
Yolande Knobel
Sven Eliaeson
Cathleen O’Connell

Motion Graphics
Ace Salisbury

Susan Chien
David Eells

Post Facility

Color and Online Finishing
Karl Tacheron

Sound Mix
Damon Addleman

Project Advisor
Vincent Brown

ATM, Inc
Johanna Kovitz
Leslie Strain
Karen Weitzel

Michelle Alexander
Danielle Allen
Mahzarin Banaji
Sissela Bok
Vincent Brown
Kaj Fölster
Walter Jackson
john powell
James Sidanius
Sudhir Venkatesh

Photo Reenactments Cast
Joel Blanco
Khyvon Bruton
Jesse Christensen
Christopher Conway
Tom Fahey
Peter Frumkin
Kani Givens
Joshua Gregory
Charles Hughley
Alex Jesus
Mario Lamarre
Christopher Louis
Shaavan Mason
Sakina Mika
Paul Penchalapadu
Miya Perkins
Joana Rosa
Paul White
Syi Wright
Kyle Zene-Moore

Archival Materials Courtesy of
ABCNEWS VideoSource
All Things Harlem
AP Images
Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv Och Bibliotek
Birmingham Public Library Archives
G. Paul Bishop
Carnegie Corporation of New York Archives
Charlotte Street Films
Kaj Fölster
Footage Farm USA
Genco Film Company
Getty Images
The Gordon Parks Foundation
HarperCollins Publishers
Harry Ransom Center, U Texas at Austin
Harvard University Archives
Historic Films Archive
Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
The Illustrated London News
Image Archives USA
Institute for Advanced Study
ITN Source
Library of Congress
National Archives and Records Administration
Schomburg Center, The New York Public Library
The New York Times/Redux
Nordiska Museet
Oddball Film + Video
Oklahoma Historical Society
Paris, TX Police Department
PDNB Gallery
Peabody Museum, Harvard University
Prelinger Archives
Project Implicit
Reel Works
Matt Roth
James Rutenbeck
Scanpix Sweden/Sipa USA
Streamline Films, Inc.
Zachary Stuart
Sveriges Television AB
The Trayvon Martin Foundation
The United Nations
University of California, Los Angeles
The University of Mississippi Libraries
University of South Carolina
University of Tulsa
University of Virginia Library
Sudhir Venkatesh
The WPA Film Library

“A Girl Like Me,” courtesy of Kiri Laurelle Davis

Special Thanks
Stellan Andersson
Boston Center for the Arts
Viet Dinh
Georgetown University Law Center
Hans Hederberg
Harvard University
Institute for Advanced Study
Chris Jordan
Colin Wayne Leach
Salem Mekuria
Museum of Science, Boston
Gregory Rodriguez
Marcus Walker
W.E.B. Du Bois Institute

Fiscal Sponsor
The Center for Independent Documentary

Executive Producer for ITVS
Sally Jo Fifer

Funding Provided by
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Fletcher Foundation

American Denial is a co-production of Vital Pictures, Inc. and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

American Denial was produced by Vital Pictures, Inc., which is solely responsible for its content.

(c) 2013 Vital Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.

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?
Please review our comment guidelines.
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?