PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks onstage at 2023 Sundance Film Festival The Big Conversation 3 at Filmmaker Lodge on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images)
By Katie Small
Kimberlé W. Crenshaw returned to the Sundance Film Festival to lead a group of artists, organizers, and scholars in discussing the future of democracy. Held in the Filmmaker Lodge on Sunday afternoon, “The Story of Us” explored how storytelling has long been and continues to be a critical enterprise in grounding the shape and contours of democratic inclusion.
Crenshaw was joined by director and comedian W. Kamau Bell; writer-director Roger Ross Williams; Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works; and Holly Cook Macarro, activist and citizen of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Crenshaw kicked off the discussion by bringing up the recent slew of “memory laws — in which the government is trying to guide public interpretation of the past by forbidding discussion of historical facts and by providing guidelines that lead to self-censorship.” Efforts to control democracy are reflected in efforts to control the narrative — how we talk about the past, how we talk about fascism, and how we talk about slavery all affect who participates in the narrative and how we shape our present and future democracy.
Stanley explained that the genesis of memory laws and authoritarianism go together; in every country where governments try to weaken democracy, they try to control the past. “Narrative participation is crucial — if your stories aren’t told, you’re not participating in the formation of the laws. Storytelling is the most compelling way to affect voting, to affect policy formation.” Stanley said that the function of memory laws is to tell a portion of the story — the story of white Christian nationalists. “These laws essentially say, ‘no teaching should cause discomfort’ — however, if you exclude stories, who does that cause discomfort to? If you exclude the history of Black and Indigenous Americans, then they are going to feel incredibly uncomfortable. So the comfort [protected] in these laws is only extended to white Christian Americans.”
Stanley also emphasized that representation in film affects how we view our democracy. “In Hollywood, Americans are the anti-fascists. Hollywood war films don’t represent that we fought Hitler with segregated armies. That we fought Hitler with the same Jim Crow policies that inspired the Nuremberg Laws,” he said. “Hollywood perpetuates the myth that America is always anti-fascist. Fascism is an original danger here, in the United States.”
Crenshaw pointed out that westerns are a film genre that “do some serious telling and un-telling” of history. She asked Macarro to weigh in. Macarro pointed out that the last generation of Hollywood studio executives came of age during the heyday of the western genre, and that they were the ones who decided if and how Native Americans were portrayed on screen. “Now those executives are [aging out], they’re at the ends of their careers — and I have to wonder whether their exit has anything to do with the renaissance and the access and the visibility that [Native Americans] are now experiencing in the film industry,” she said, referencing TV shows like Reservation Dogs.
Crenshaw called on Williams to describe his work for The 1619 Project, “the most banned project in America.” The 1619 Project is a reframing of the story of America, which argues that every aspect of American life has been touched by and formed through slavery. “1619 is when the ship The White Lion arrived in Virginia, carrying the first 20 slaves,” Williams explained. “Our premise is that that is the true founding of America.”
In response, Crenshaw said, “Partly what we’re looking at here is how the beginning of the story kind of dictates where the story goes. If you start [the story of America] in 1620, you have a whole different story than if you start with the year 1619. 1620 is the story of a group who came here to an unpopulated continent and ‘civilized’ the people who were already there. But if you start in 1619, that’s a completely different story,” she said. “Where you start the story is important. What you know, what you’ve been exposed to, really determines what you think the American story is. And we’ve been looking at partial stories all along. It’s not an accident that some of these memory laws try to dictate where we start the story, who the characters are, what the drama really is, what the tension really is — they’re trying to say, ‘these stories, and not those stories.’”
The panel concluded by challenging audience members to consider how narrative is not simply an expression of inclusion but is essential to strengthening democratic ideals. Attendees received a copy of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a book about Walter McMillian, a Black man who was wrongly convicted of murder and placed on death row, and that, despite being banned in American prisons, was made into a powerful film.