American Denial Premieres on Independent Lens Monday, February 23, 2015, on PBS

A provocative look at race in America through the prism of a landmark 1944 inquiry into Jim Crow segregation

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(San Francisco, CA) – In 1938, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to begin his landmark study of race and inequality in the United States. His question: How could a people who cherish freedom and fairness also create such a racially oppressive society? Published in 1944, “An American Dilemma” was cited in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate America’s schools. Seventy years later, Myrdal’s question continues to challenge America –- how do we explain the disconnect between what we believe and what we practice in what some have called a “post-racial” America? American Denial juxtaposes past and present, shifting from Myrdal’s investigation –- and his own personal struggle with denial — and current stories of racial injustice that are often overlooked in our national insistence on the preeminence of the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. Directed by Llewellyn Smith and produced by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Smith, and Kelly Thomson, American Denial premieres on Independent Lens on Monday, February 23, 2015, 10:00 to 11:00pm ET (check local listings) on PBS. 

An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils I saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote a massive 1500-page investigation of race he called An American Dilemma. His study, now a considered a classic, challenged the veracity of the American Creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all by arguing that critically implicit in the Creed — which Myrdal called America’s “state religion” — was a nefarious conflict: the way for white Americans to explain to themselves why black Americans could not succeed in a nation offering equal opportunity was to view blacks as inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. But are we still a society living in this state of denial seventy years later, in an era marked by the election of the nation’s first black president? 

American Denial sheds a unique light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans. Archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the 30s and 40s thread through the story, as well as footage showing the surprising results of psychological tests of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop and frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned crime and 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. 

Visit the American Denial companion website ( which features information about the film, including an interview with the filmmakers and resources pertaining to the film’s subject matter. 

About the Participants, in Order of Appearance

Michelle Alexander is a longtime civil rights advocate and litigator. She won a 2005 Soros Justice Fellowship and now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University. 

Danielle Allen is a political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. 

Mahzarin Banaji is an experimental psychologist and professor at Harvard University and Chair in Human Dynamics at the Santa Fe Institute. 

Sissela Bok is the daughter of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal and a philosopher and ethicist. 

Vincent Brown is a professor of history and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and a multi-media historian with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. 

Kaj Fölster is the youngest daughter of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal and an author and political activist. 

Walter A. Jackson is a professor of history at North Carolina State University. 

Professor john a. powell is Executive Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS) and Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. 

James Sidanius is a professor in the departments of psychology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. 

Sudhir Venkatesh is professor of sociology, and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. remarkable low-income Boston neighborhood where he grew up. Other films or series contributions include Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery (1997), Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003), and Forgotten Genius (2007) 

Kelly Thomson (Producer) served as producer and editor on Vital Pictures’ award-winning films, including Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street, The Raising of America, Herskovits at the Heart of Darkness, and Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? She is currently in production 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. Thomson began working in film at the age of 19 and has worked on a number of independent films over the past fifteen years, including Wild Art, Hotels 4, All Falls Down, A Vote for Choice, and Funeral of the Last Gypsy King. She received her BA from New York University in Religious Studies. 

Director: Llewellyn Smith
Producers: Christine Herbes-Sommers, Llewellyn Smith & Kelly Thomson
Editor: James Rutenbeck
Supervising Producer: Wendy Riseborough
Illustrator: Line Olsson
Associate Producer : Jeremy Wolf
Director of Photography: Tom Fahey
Music by : OBT Music & P. Andrew Willis 

About Independent Lens
Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing on PBS Monday nights at 10:00pm. The acclaimed series features documentaries united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement, and unflinching visions of independent filmmakers. Presented by Independent Television Service, the series is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding from PBS and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. For more visit Join the conversation: and on Twitter .

Posted on December 15, 2014