Director and producer usually works on projects concerning Palestinians living under occupation, but he switches gears in Why Is We Americans, collaborating with co-director Ayana Stafford-Morris to tell the story of a Black family in New Jersey. The film mixes elements like archive footage and Rauschenberg-esque title cards showing the words of the family’s patriarch Amiri Baraka. And that mix mostly gets the tone right, but the archive footage is mostly interesting in remembering a man and a family since their work hasn’t fully reached 21st century viewers. What’s important here is to show that activism and art can mix. Specifically, it shows artforms that Black artists like Amiri used like spoken word, an artform that some viewers still ghettoize.
Amiri is a fascinating subject in himself but Why Is We Americans also gives the spotlight to his son Ras. When the cameras were rolling in 2018, he was seeking reelection as Newark’s mayor. His run got an endorsement from Cory Booker, who appears in the film. Another main subject is Amiri’s wife Amina, who discusses moments of her life like her migration from the Carolinas. She also discusses her proud feelings about her daughter Shani. Shani, when she was younger, went back to the South to study and eventually coached basketball. A portrait of Shani foreshadows an event that the film discloses later. What happens to her further galvanizes the family into regaining their purpose.
Why Is We Americans does have moments when it feels distracted as it juggles the events that are important to four or more separate subjects, but that’s a thing that happens to straightforward documentaries like this. Besides, the film says a lot through its images and the words that its subjects say, as it should. Seeing Ras wear a hoodie as often as he wears suits say so much about the respectability politics. As we know, the media assigns that burden to Black politicians more than they do to their white counterparts. Amina, accordingly, talks about how America sees Black people as a people unable to govern themselves. That’s an argument that she and Ras demolish through the film.
The film is careful not to make it a puff piece about a political family and it’s successful on that regard. It’s also a love letter to the city that allowed that family to succeed. It also properly mourns members of the community and the Baraka family like Shani who died because of gun violence. It mixes the personal and the political. In doing so, it’s frank yet respectful about the problems of the community that have either inside or outside causes. It lets Black people address those issues in their own terms, remembering a culture and a heritage that’s important to them.
Why Is We Americans spent two years in the festival circuit and is finally coming out in limited release in American theatres starting this Friday. Lauryn Hill, who serves as an executive producer, as well as Roxanne Shante, make appearances in the film.