“American Denial” is a documentary from independent filmmaker Llewellyn Smith, a man undoubtedly familiar with covering the topic of racial tensions in America, having previously contributed to “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery,” “Race: The Power of an Illusion” and “Forgotten Genius.”
In the film’s greatest misstep, the intent of “American Denial” strikes a stark contrast with its actual summary. The documentary, at least in my early perception of it, was supposed to address modern racial tensions in America while presenting the negative consequences of underlying racism, especially those of which have been strewn across national media for what seems like a year of domestic ethnic conflict.
Instead it seems to be a biopic relating the life and studies of Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish-born psychologist, to some stirring modern surveys. Myrdal was tasked with analyzing race relations in 1960s America, eventually resulting in the largely influential and often-cited book “An American Dilemna: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.”
Myrdal had a sincere love for America, a love that only deepened once he realized the citizenry’s own internal struggle to match their actions to their creed of equality “for all.” He’s a multi-layered personality with plenty of interesting stories, and the film’s attempt to recount them all results in too little time and footage devoted to the present.
Maybe 35 of the 60 minutes are allotted to documenting Myrdal and his study, accompanied by aged, black and white footage of Jim Crow era segregation. Unfortunately, the dated nature of these images lets the audience put distance between itself and the discrimination discussed in the film.
Granted, the remaining 25 minutes present plenty of thought-provoking questions for the viewers. “Are all Americans, regardless of race, complicit in the perpetuation of racial biases in our country? Is racism still institutional and systemic in the USA or have we come a long way since the early civil rights era?”
To help answer, “Denial” shows the results of a few recent race-based psychological tests. In possibly the most effective scene, young African-American girls are told to choose between a white and black baby doll. More often than not, these girls would indicate the white doll as being nicer; when asked which doll resembled them, some would cry and ask to leave.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking, and the film could have used more content like this to challenge any notion that we live in a post-racial America. Other tests, such as the Implicit Association Test, prove startlingly accurate in measuring a subject’s subconscious racist impulses.
One such study even went so far as to indicate that a white doctor might be inclined to refuse a black patient potentially life-saving medicine. The modern stuff is stirring, but a bit too few and far between. The potency of the film is lessened by its lack of focus on our contemporary society and its didactic attempts to teach the audience some rather simple concepts, such as implicit bias. Overall it’s worth seeing if you’re interested in the subject of racial tension (or Nobel Laureates). Just don’t expect an in-depth analysis of recent events. Whether or not you see the film, I highly recommend taking the Implicit Association Test, which can be found on the film’s page on PBS.