Filmmaker Herbes-Sommers visits cinema to discuss denial in race issues

Denial may be perpetuating the social injustices seen in contemporary America.

“Sometimes, denial is good,” said Christine Herbes-Sommers, executive producer of the film “American Denial.” “It helps you get through some things in life. In other areas — such as racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism and just in the reality of life — it is a very bad thing.”

The film “reveals that we are different people than we think we are,” she said.

“American Denial” will screen at 6 p.m. tonight in the Chautauqua Cinema as part of Chautauqua Institution’s Meet the Filmmaker series.

The PBS documentary explores the unconscious beliefs and feelings Americans have about others and themselves.

The idea of “American Denial” was conceived five years ago, Herbes-Sommers said.

The film follows a study conducted by Swedish economist and Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal.

Along with other team members and filmmakers, Herbes-Sommers studied the denial, cognitive dissonance and unconscious attitudes about how race affects society.

Herbes-Sommers said Myrdal’s question of how a society devoted to the American creed of equality, justice and liberty tolerates a system in which a huge portion of its population is denied the privileges of that creed.

It was a key point that inspired the film.

In his 1930s study of the Jim Crow South, Myrdal found many people believed that America afforded everyone the same opportunity.

So if a person does not succeed, Herbes-Sommers said, “something is wrong with you. And if you belong to a group that has not been able to succeed or gain access to the American Dream, then something is wrong with that group.”

Looking inward can create a greater degree of empathy for others and an understanding of the consequences of unconscious beliefs, she said.

Americans talk a lot about empathy and tolerance, but Herbes-Sommers said they have to do more than just tolerate and include each other.

“One would hope that, by conquering our unconscious biases, we create both empathy for ourselves and our weakness and empathy for the victims of our bias,” she said.