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Plight of the Uyghurs; Interview With Viggo Mortensen; Interview With Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Aired 2-3p ET
Aired February 05, 2021 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges,
but today's and tomorrow's.
AMANPOUR (voice-over): As a new U.S. president grapples with powerful adversaries, I'm joined by the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, Senator Bob Menendez.
Then: the Uyghur-American lawyer who was born in one of China's infamous detention camps.
LANCE HENRIKSEN, ACTOR: You want to take advantage because you think I have lost my marbles. But I didn't!
AMANPOUR: Actor-cum-director Viggo Mortensen on his new film, "Falling" into dementia.
IBRAM X. KENDI, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Why not bring together a community to write the history of a community?
AMANPOUR: Telling the African-American story with a chorus of black voices. Award-winning historians Dr. Keisha N. Blain and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
join our Michel Martin.
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
There's already plenty of reaction overseas to President Biden's first major foreign policy address from Washington. Allies welcome the America's
back slogan, while the Kremlin called the Russian part aggressive. Biden honed in on China as well, where there's a fair amount of consensus both in
Congress and among European allies, the president labeling Beijing America's most serious strategic competitor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: We will confront China's economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action to push back on China's attack on human rights,
intellectual property and global governance.
But we're ready to work with Beijing when it's in America's interest to do so.
AMANPOUR: Now, balancing all that is definitely a big ask. On the issue of human rights, the Biden administration is following the outgoing Trump
administration's calling China's crackdown on its Muslim Uyghur population genocide.
Joining me now on this and America's other global challenges is New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who is now the chair of the Senate Foreign
Welcome, Senator, from Washington.
So, I wonder. Many administrations have had to sort of square the circle, so to speak, on how you deal with strategic competitors by trying to get
them in line with some of your objectives, while continue to work on others.
How do you think is going to work out, for instance, with China?
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well, Christiane, first of all, thank you for having me with you.
Look, I look at China, as well as most of us in the Senate, and pretty much in a bipartisan way, yes, as a strategic competitor, a nation that we need
to confront in some cases, for example, on the case of the human rights violations with Uyghurs, and that we need to compete.
So, it's that combination of confronting and competing that we have to keep in focus. And we are stronger when we bring the economies of the United
States, the E.U., Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others to deal with China's unfair trade practices, to deal with the economic competition
that we have to have with China, its undue influence and corrosive influence with countries that need assistance.
And China uses that in a corrosive way. So, bringing our coalitions back together is one of the strategic elements I'm glad to see the Biden
administration is pursuing. And we have legislation that's called the America LEADS Act. And, basically, it is a whole-of-government approach to
meeting the challenge of China.
AMANPOUR: I'm going to get into the human rights issue a little bit in a moment, a little bit more deeply with you in a moment.
But, first, on these similar issues regarding Russia, the president was quite clear. He was actually very strong on the jailed dissident Alexei
Navalny, over and again repeating his name, which we all know President Putin never likes to say. So, he's really pushing that in Putin's face.
And this is what he said about Navalny:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. The politically motivated jailing of Alexei
Navalny and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern to us and the international
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, you have heard the Kremlin has called the Russia part of the speech last night as unconstructive or -- unconstructive, aggressive, and
the like. They don't like it at all.
Again, President Biden says America will not roll over on all sorts of strategic issues there.
The track record hasn't been great from the U.S. Neither the Obama administration's reset, nor before that and ever since the Iraq War,
really, things have been going pretty -- pretty badly between the U.S. and Russia.
How do you see a change in this direction happening?
MENENDEZ: Well, I'm sure that President Putin felt it was aggressive, because, for the last four years, he's heard absolutely nothing from the
United States as it relates to Russia's nefarious actions and violations of the international order, from the annexation of Crimea, the invasion into
parts of Ukraine, what they did in Syria, and the bombings that killed innocent civilians, what they did in the -- Skripal and using chemical
weapons to seek to assassinate their opponents.
What they did in trying to undermine our elections in the United States, and, for that fact, also in European Union elections, and so much more. So,
when you hear silence from the United States, when President Trump was unwilling to utter the name of Vladimir Putin and Russia in any pejorative
way, of course he's going to find this speech aggressive.
I applaud the president. I have been one of those who have been an advocate for a more aggressive edge. I hope that the administration, for example,
will use long-overdue chemical weapons sanctions, because we must make a global statement that you cannot use chemical weapons either to assassinate
someone or on anybody's foreign land.
I think that the more robust, targeted sanctions, particularly among Putin's cronies, his oligarchs, that he clearly defines as who gets what in
the Russian economy and who leads it under those oligarchs, who then fuel him, need to be pursued.
I think that we have to send a clear message that you don't get access to our financial institutions. And this once again will require
multilateralism, working with the E.U., some who have faced firsthand the consequences of Putin's aggressive and nefarious actions.
But Putin only understands strength. And so he has seen weakness from the United States over the last four years, I believe the Biden administration
will be more muscular.
AMANPOUR: I mean, to be fair, the Trump administration did have a huge amount of sanctions on Russia, despite, as you correctly put it, the
expressions in terms of language from President Trump.
So, I mean, what do you think will make a difference, because do you feel...
MENENDEZ: And, by the way, Christiane...
MENENDEZ: By the way, those sanctions, most of them were congressionally directed, congressionally passed laws that we continuously forced the
president to try to pursue.
Some of them, actually, that I helped write and was the author of are mandatory. And yet are very often there are still elements of those
sanctions that weren't pursued. I agree there were more. But they were not because the administration had the -- the previous administration had the
desire to do it.
AMANPOUR: So, let's go to China, because I heard today from the Briefing Room spokeswoman constantly saying the word strategic competitor.
Is this a -- is this a new formulation? And how are you going to deal with this rising and very powerful strategic competitor, on the one hand, while,
on the other hand, very clearly talking about human rights, which China has never, it seems, in any meaningful way responded to?
You have kept up the designation, or this administration, of the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide from the previous administration. What will that
mean practically, because genocide, I think, under the Geneva Convention, means you actually have to do something about it, if you label it like
MENENDEZ: Well, again, I not only look at China as a strategic competitor, but as a strategic adversary.
This is where internationalizing our efforts are going to be so important. I have seen most recently the Australians talk about the abuse of Uyghur
women in the concentration camps. I have seen other countries engage.
If we multilateralize this, China gets away with its economic power when it can go one-on-one with countries that don't have the wherewithal to meet
the challenge. When we come in common cause and create a joint front, both the WTO, both in terms of the economic actions that China takes that is an
unfair trade advantage, when we come together on the question of human rights, then I think China recalculates.
And that's one of the critical elements we have lost over the last four years. And in my conversation with both -- since I got the chairmanship
again, with several world leaders and a whole host of foreign ministers and whatnot, I think there I an appetite for that.
And I think this administration can help lead that effort. That changes the dynamic with China. If China is only thinking, even in a bilateral context,
with the United States, or with Great Britain, or with France, or with Germany, it looks at it in one way.
When China sees the collectivity of all of these nations, both economically and politically, that changes the paradigm for them.
AMANPOUR: So, if you were sitting in Beijing, and you were the all- powerful Xi Jinping, the president of China, I wonder how you would be looking at the United States now, certainly, after these past four years.
The former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd, who, as you know, is president of the Asia Society in the United States, has said: Xi believes
the United States is experiencing a steady, irreversible, structural decline."
Would you agree with that? And what is the Biden administration's plan to prove that wrong?
MENENDEZ: Well, I know that may be Xi Jinping's dream, but the nightmare for him will be that is, number one, not the reality, that, as President
Biden has said both at home, we need to be strong at home economically and in terms of the pursuit of our own values and ideals, so that then we can
make that line -- that light shine brightly across the world.
And that is what we are doing. When we build back stronger, when we create an economy that is stronger, when we join in common cause with other
countries, it will be Xi Jinping's worst nightmare.
And while he may continue to think that we are in decline, when we rise again and bring others with us, I think that that strategic challenge will
be one that China will have to recontemplate how it acts. We want China to ultimately be part of the international order, to observe the international
China doesn't believe that, since it wasn't part of the creation of those rules, it doesn't have to abide by it. It has his own vision of what it
wants to see the world order be. That is our challenge, but also our opportunity.
AMANPOUR: And, finally, because this is specific to the Senate, I'm going to read it, the actual name of it.
Last week, the Senate reintroduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act because of the accusations that forced labor is producing all sorts of
goods that are being exported, and particularly to the United States.
Are you -- I mean, is that going to happen? And do you believe that that will make a difference?
MENENDEZ: I think it will happen. I think there is strong bipartisan support in the Senate for actions on the Uyghurs.
I have taken those with Senator Rubio, along with others. And at the end of the day, I think it can be a another tool to send a very clear message to
the Chinese that the forced concentration of Uyghurs, the abuses of Uyghurs, or, for that fact, any other group, the use of slave labor is
something that isn't tolerated here at home or abroad.
And when the label made in China becomes a stain and is globally rejected, I think that changes dramatically even their human rights perceptions.
AMANPOUR: Senator Robert Menendez, once again chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thank you so much for being with us.
So, let's focus now deeper on what being a Uyghur in China is really like.
Nury Turkel was born into a reeducation camp there during China's cultural revolution. And he's now a lawyer who's securing asylum for more than 100
Uyghur refugees. He's also a commissioner on the U.S. Commission International Religious Freedom.
Welcome to the program from Washington, Mr. Turkel.
You just heard Senator Menendez, in the powerful role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Are you satisfied with what you're
hearing from this current administration and the Senate leadership now on what they plan to do about your people, the Uyghurs, inside China?
NURY TURKEL, U.S. COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Good to be with you, Christiane.
First of all, I am grateful for the leadership role that Senators Menendez and Senators Rubio has taken -- have taken on this issue from the
As the senator mentioned, we have bipartisan support on human rights issues involving China, particularly on the Uyghur crisis now been labeled, was
determined as a genocide.
So, the next step is, what do we do about it now? You posed a perfect -- perfectly legitimate question. Determination of atrocity is an important
step into the right direction, but the action follows that would be much more significant.
In our country's diplomatic history, we're in a very interesting, very complicated, challenging juncture, that the United States now, with this
determination by Secretary Pompeo, and then endorsed by new Secretary of State Blinken, shows that the United States needed to have a new policy.
So, this is not another typical human rights case. But the United States government, for its leadership, coupled with the support from allies and
partners, this has to be a global effort.
Number two, we need to look at the role of the business community. The business leaders have to look at this as a moral issue, as well as an
economic security issue. It will be unconscionable for the business community here at home and abroad to continue business as usual, where this
government has been determined by legal scholars, substantiated by evidence, as a genocidal campaign undertaking on world's watch.
Let me ask you some of these issues, because you wrote an important piece in "The New York Times," an opinion piece, talking about goods that are
being made -- and I brought this up with the senator -- through forced labor, which are opening and ending up on U.S. markets.
And we have pictures from Chinese state television which shows some of these factories on things like wigs, face mask, clothing, electronics, and
the U.S. customs have seized 13 tons of wigs, as we can see in this picture, in the summer.
China, of course -- we need to say this -- denies forced labor. They call them poverty alleviation programs. The centers, they say, are voluntary and
provide vocational training. They also say as part of the, I guess, Uyghur deradicalization program.
Tell me, from your experience, what is going on inside these factories.
TURKEL: These factories has been something new to the international community, but it has been going on -- the type of forced labor that I
described in my piece has been going on as long as I can remember.
I grew up in a Uyghur heartland, Kashgar, watching, witnessing Uyghur villagers taken to the fields to pick cotton and build irrigation system by
this very entity, by the way, known as Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which the United States government sanctioned under the global
This particular entity is also responsible for polluting global economic system with the tainted products produced by Uyghur slaves, modern slaves.
That includes PPE, Christiane. Think about that. Think about it for a minute that even PPEs, as the world is handling and dealing with this
health care crisis, were produced by Uyghur slaves.
Think about the beauty products that the Chinese government, Chinese entities promoting in African-American community has black gold made of
Uyghur prisoners' hair.
So, people always say that history is repeating itself, but we are allowing history to repeat itself. Today, in the 21st century, the international
community has failed miserably to address this modern-day slavery, address this modern-day technology-supported genocide.
And it's also -- it is almost unconscionable for European leaders, particularly, in light of the fact that they know how it ends when a
government, where a bad actor goes after a religious minority, ethnic minority.
The international community has seen this movie before. They never again ring shallow, simply because international community have been buying into
-- buying -- been staying silent under the -- China's pressure. And, also, some of the responses had been tepid and meandering.
When you listen to governments -- I used to say, oh, such and such a leader expressed concern. Expressing concern is not the same as taking action.
They need to stop looking the other way.
And I'm going to ask you a little bit more in detail about what you said. But I want to get in this, this horrific -- horrific reports that are
coming out about allegations of mass rape and assault of women, Uyghur women.
And, also, we understand -- and certainly correspondent Ivan Watson has covered some of the claims of forced sterilization by Uyghur women. We just
want to play this sound bite.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Zumrat Dawut is a Chinese Uyghur who says she was forcibly sterilized by the government.
In October 2018, she says she was summoned to a government office and fined 18,401 yuan, the equivalent of around $2,600, for having one child too.
ZUMRAT DAWUT, UYGHUR CAMP SURVIVOR (through translator): They said there is an order from above that says, you must have a birth control procedure
done. We went to the surgery. They put me in bed and hooked me to an I.V. bag, and then I passed out.
WATSON: A doctor later told Zumrat the sterilization was permanent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, we have been reaching out to Chinese officials all along to talk about this issue.
But their response from Beijing is that, of course, they deny any mistreatment of women. And they say that fewer births are because of
education and development.
So, I want to ask you, because this is now -- these reports are going around, you say the world must look the other way. But you have seen what
happens when anybody, whether it's a sports personality, a politician, whoever it might be, criticizes China on anything, particularly human
rights, and the whole weight of the Chinese system comes down.
There seems to be no space for any discussion on these human rights issues at all. How do you think that's going to change?
TURKEL: This is the core of the problem. This is the essence of the problem that we're dealing with.
The international community initially thought that helping China to become an economically powerful country supported with technology and world-class
education, they will just act and sound like us. It didn't happen.
So, the global -- specifically on a leadership level, anywhere from the European Union to the North American capitals, they need to sit down and
think about what they -- what they should do to protect.
Even, like, in the case of NBA, like, in today, those of us who watch the celebrity public statements oftentimes wonder why they're not saying
anything. It goes to the heart of the question that you were asking, because they're afraid of upsetting China. It's an economic interest.
The case in point, Mesut Ozil, used to play for Arsenal, now located to Europe, actually, Turkey, because he made a statement, very powerful
statement, against China. That hurt his professional career, to the extent -- even though this has not been publicly discussed.
So, we need to have a new strategy. I think the governments in particular - - I know that, in a capitalist market economy, the government cannot dictate how businesses operate. But the businesses need to have the backing
of governments in dealing with China's pressure.
AMANPOUR: Can I ask you very briefly, very briefly? But I know it's a very deep issue.
You were born in a reeducation camp. Your father was consigned to a forced labor camp. This is at the height of the cultural revolution in China. What
are your memories from that?
TURKEL: I grew up in a -- what historians described as a cradle of Uyghur civilization, Kashgar.
I remember -- I have a vivid memory of my childhood years because, back then, even though the political repression, human rights violations were --
exist, we had some space for go back with our lives.
I remember going to the religious ceremonies following my father. My father is a retired university professor. My mother gave birth to me while she was
physically injured. Since I arrived to the United States 25 years ago, I was only able to spend 11 months with my parents. Last time I saw my mother
was in 2004, when she came to Washington for my law school graduation.
And I don't know if I will ever see them again.
AMANPOUR: And now you're working to help Uyghurs come over and get asylum.
So, we wish you all the best. Thank you for being with us.
Next, we take a fictional look at a growing real-life public health crisis in the new film "Falling."
The Oscar nominated actor Viggo Mortensen, breakout star of "Lord of the Rings," "Green Book," and many others, turns his hand now to directing.
It's the very personal story of a father losing his battle against dementia, while his strained relationship with his gay son shows up, and
this son is trying to care for him.
Here's a clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FALLING")
HENRIKSEN: You need to go back to California.
VIGGO MORTENSEN, ACTOR: Well, we will go back as soon as you have healed sufficiently.
Looks good, a lot less redness. Staples come out in five days. And then maybe we can leave.
HENRIKSEN: You need to go back to California.
Oh, this looks like a hippie graveyard in here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Now, as you can see, Mortensen also stars in the film.
And he's joining me now from Madrid, where he is based.
Viggo Mortensen, welcome to the program.
MORTENSEN: Thanks for having me.
Considering all the things that are happening in the world, I appreciate you taking a little time to talk about our story.
AMANPOUR: Well, thank you for saying that. But it is, obviously, as I said, a massive public health crisis. And so many people are having to look
after their elderly families in this situation right now. So it's really important, also, what you're doing.
But what made you want to take on this subject, especially for your first go as a director?
MORTENSEN: Well, it's something that's -- I have a lot of intimate experience with, dementia, in both my parents, my stepdad. Many members of
our family, both sides of my family have had this illness.
And I have seen it up close over a period of many years, decades in different people, even in a caregiving role. And it's not something that
you automatically know how to deal with. You learn as you go along, and maybe you can learn from other people that have had the experience.
It's a -- I mean, it's a movie that is about communication in general, how difficult that is sometimes with certain people. And, certainly, when
someone has dementia, it adds another layer of complication to that.
And I wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore, what do you do when it seems impossible to communicate with someone? There's also another aspect.
This particular character who has dementia, the -- my father in this story played by Lance Henriksen, who you just saw, who does an amazing job, he's
a very difficult person to deal with even before he had dementia.
AMANPOUR: Oh, yes.
MORTENSEN: He's irascible, isolated, an embittered old man in many ways.
And one of the questions that come up really is, are there people that you just can't communicate with, whether they have dementia or not? Are there
people that don't deserve to be communicated with? These are not things I'm giving answers to. I'm just posing the question.
I happen to think that there's a possibility to communicate with or at least to listen to and try to understand something about them with anyone,
no matter how opposite their views.
And I think that's a timely thing, I mean, in society right now. It's almost like another pandemic, the poor communication or nil communication
problem that we have.
AMANPOUR: Well, you have already laid out the thesis and you have answered my question as to -- I mean, I found it really difficult, because the
father character is so utterly unlikable and unlovable.
And it's not just his dementia. As you mentioned, you, as a young kid in the film -- your character, as a young kid, was, I mean, essentially abused
by him. And you're a gay son, and he's completely homophobic. And he just seems to be irredeemable.
And yet your character, as you turn around to take care of him as an adult, is so giving and so patient and takes it. You just keep taking it from this
guy. I was -- I was shocked by that.
MORTENSEN: Well, he's a -- it's a conscious effort. It's not like we were trying to paint a portrait of a saint.
It's somebody who he's had trouble communicating with his whole life. And he makes a choice. He says to him in one scene, realizing that this old
man, who happens to be his father, who happens to be irascible and very difficult to deal with, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, whatever you can
think of that's bad to be, he is in need of mental and physical help, whether he wants to admit it or not.
And he's so cantankerous that the only person that even has the slightest chance of helping him is his son, the character I play. So, he says to him,
at one point, you can insult me all you want. I refuse -- I have made myself I promise I won't get into another big blowout with you. I want to
And so he knows that, in order to even have a chance to help him, he's going to have to take a lot of crap from him. And that's difficult to do.
And he doesn't manage to do it the whole way. He tries, but it's not an easy choice for him. He's not especially a better person than anyone else.
That's just the choice he makes. And I don't advocate that anyone should do one thing or the other. Everybody makes their decision in each situation,
each relationship. And in society, that's what happens.
But, for sure, if you write someone off, which it's easier to condemn or dismiss someone than to try to understand them, then you will get nowhere.
That's for sure. We know that in families. We know that in society in general.
MORTENSEN: You know, that's --
AMANPOUR: Yes. Actually, the way you put it now, it does have a broader application to society because it is about how do you get through to even
the most, as nicely put it, irascible. Let's play a little clip. It's on the airplane while -- the very beginning of the film, you are taking your
father back to live with you and your husband, he keeps calling him your boyfriend, but nonetheless, your husband, as you keep pointing out. And
here he is on the plane and your interaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You pull.
MORTENSEN: Pull, dad. Dad, you can't smoke in here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's let your mother sleep for a while. It is very early.
MORTENSEN: Good idea.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, of course, your mother by the time is dead.
MORTENSEN: Yes. Long --
AMANPOUR: Sorry, what were you saying?
MORTENSEN: No, she is dead 30 years ago as you say.
MORTENSEN: But that's an example, it's a small moment, but it is something that John has started to learn, and which I learned in dealing with people
with dementia, the worst thing you can do is correct someone. I mean, by the time someone is in that state, it is too late to argue and correct
people and criticize really. How can you serve them, which is what you should do with all of your friends on some level, I think, how can you
serve them, not what you need or what your ego requires?
And when he says, you know, let's let your mother sleep, it is very early. I realize that he clearly doesn't realize that he is in a lavatory of the
plane, he thinks that he is back at the farm, you know, he doesn't want to wake up my mother who has been dead for 30 years. And so, rather than
saying, what are you talking about, you know, I say, good idea. Let's let her sleep. That's you got to do or someone says, I had lunch with so and so
and you know they've been dead for many years, instead of saying, no, they are dead, which is devastating, just ask him what they had for lunch,
sacrifice your own ego in those situations.
AMANPOUR: That is an interesting point, a really important point actually because, I guess, everybody feels like they have to bring that person back
into the realm of reality, and yet, it is just not possible. So, as you say, let them -- make them comfortable.
But can I ask you something, because you obviously said that you have a lot of dementia in your family, you must have been scared that you might have
it as well. Have you been tested? What is the situation with you?
MORTENSEN: Yes, I found out, I was talking to a friend a couple of years ago about this, and he said, well, you know that there is a blood test to
see whether you have a genetic predisposition to getting Alzheimer's or dementia. I said, really? Did you take the test? No, no, no, I don't want
to know. I said, well, I do. So, I did go and get the test and I was told that, apparently, I don't have a predisposition, that it's not likely that
I will get it. One never knows of course. Anything can happen.
We've certainly seen in the past year that life is fragile, it always is, we just don't like to think about it, that life is short and that, you
know, we could get sick or die at any moment. But during the pandemic, we certainly are all well aware of that fact, and I think that is positive. I
think it makes you get the most out of life. It makes you speak perhaps more kindly with people even if you're in disagreement. I think that's
important. And, you know --
MORTENSEN: Yes. No, it's something I'm concerned about and something I've had experience with. But until I get it, I don't have it.
AMANPOUR: Indeed, indeed. And I wanted to ask you something which I found kind of amusing in reading the research. I hadn't realized until afterwards
that David Cronenberg, the great director, you had used him as a -- in a cameo role as the proctologist when your father was getting tested.
Obviously, you have done a lot Cronenberg -- work with Cronenberg.
AMANPOUR: And apparently, the actor playing your father didn't know either. I mean, that's pretty funny that it was him.
MORTENSEN: It is very funny. I had no idea at the time. We were shooting in Canada where -- I mean, David Cronenberg is an internationally
respected, one of our living masters in cinema. But, in Canada, it's like a deity just walked on the set when it came to work. And so, the crew -- you
know, there was a rush of emotion and then he sort of settled them down with a couple of quick jokes, and then he got the work. And it was -- it
went well. And then when he was done, he left. And I said to Lance, how did that feel? He goes, he's very good, very strict. It was kind of -- he
really gave as good as he got. And I didn't think anything more of it.
And then about a month ago, Lance called me via Skype, as he does sometimes, and he said, hey, you know what YouTube is, and I said yes. He
said, you can see all kinds of things on there. I said, well, what have you just seen? And he said, I saw you and Dr. Klausner having a conversation
sitting on a stage somewhere in a movie theater. And then I -- and then you were talking about a David Cronenberg movie.
And then I realized that's David Cronenberg. And I said, are you kidding me? You didn't know you were working with David Cronenberg? He said, no, I
had no idea. How should I know? Well, of course, the director is behind the camera. So, have you seen his movies? Yes, I know them but I didn't know
what he looked it. It was funny.
AMANPOUR: That's good. It's a really good anecdote. It's really funny. I wish we could talk longer. Viggo Mortensen, thank you so much. Good luck
with this debut as a director and it is a hugely important topic. Thanks for being with us.
Now, it is black history month in America. So, let us reach for the new book, "Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African-America," which
was published this week. Written by award-winning historians, Keisha Blain and Ibram X. Kendi. it includes essays from many prominent black voices,
including Angela Davis and Nikole Hannah Jones. Here are Blain and Kendi talking with our Michel Martin about why is it so important to you make a
book a choral history?
MICHEL MARTIN, CNNI CONTRIBUTOR: Thank you, Christiane. Professor Kendi, Professor Blain, talking both so much for joining us.
KEISHA N. BLAIN, CO-EDITOR, "FOUR HUNDRED SOULS": Thank you for having us.
IBRAM X. KENDI, CO-EDITOR, "FOUR HUNDRED SOULS": Yes. Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, each of you has done sweeping large projects, but this is something else entirely. I mean, this is a collection of 80 writers, it
includes journalists, historians and poets. Professor Kendi, you call this a communal diary. What do you mean by that and why this approach?
KENDI: Well, I mean, we really wanted to demonstrate the diversity of black America. And, you know, often times we're seeing black folks I've
seen monolith when we're strikingly -- we can very distinct. We -- you know, there are, of course, people, different ethnic backgrounds, of
course, gender, sexual orientations, regions, ages, and I think that's represented in the text in terms of the contributors themselves, but even
the history itself.
And so -- but I also think that it was important to not tell the same -- to not write history in the same way where it is typically one person, usually
a man, writing a history of the community. Why not bring together a community to write the history of a community.
MARTIN: Could I ask you to just give us a passage or two perhaps from one of your own essays that helps us to understand what this book is about and
what you are trying to accomplish?
KENDI: So, I will share the final two graphs of the introduction that I wrote. There may be no better word to encapsulate black American history
than community. For better or worse, ever since the 20 Ingogo (ph) people arrived, individuals of African-American descent have for the most part
been made into a community, functioned as a community, departed the community, lived through so much as a community. I don't know how the
community has survived and at times thrived as much as it has been deprived for 400 years.
The history of black America has been almost spiritual. Striving to survive the death that is racism. Living through death like spirits, forging a
soulful history. The history full of souls. A soul for each year of history. Four hundred souls.
MARTIN: And Professor Blain, as I mentioned earlier, this doesn't just have trained historians, people like yourselves, it has journalists, it has
poets, it has political organizers writing pieces, often in very different voices. I just curious, Professor Blain, why that approach? Why these
different kinds writers contributing to this kind of collection?
BLAIN: Well, we really wanted to capture the richness and the complexity of the history. And part of that meant having space to be creative. And I
think, if we had a book with only, you know, professional historians, everyone might have approached their topic in similar way. But what's nice
about asking a philosopher to weight in or a journalist to weight in is that they are able to come to the topic through different lenses and
through difference experiences and trainings. And I think, ultimately, we wanted the book to feel just that sense of community and that diverse
community and we wanted each piece to be unique even though they were all connected thematically.
MARTIN: There are 80 writers and they're all remarkable and they're all different and go through, you know, 400 years of history, because let's
take turns and ask like which are some of the favorite essays?
KENDI: There are so many incredible pieces. But I will cheat and say, actually, the first piece in the text, Nikole Hannah-Jones's essay on
1619to 1624. And, of course, she is well-known for directing and conceiving of "The 1619 Project." But her piece really sets the tone for this text.
And what I mean by that is, it causes the reader to truly reimagine the arrival. It is -- it has an extremely authoritative but simultaneously
serious and complicated voice. You know, I am not speaking directly about what it is because it is so beautiful, I don't want to give it away. But I
think it really sort of sets the tone for the book.
MARTIN: The closing lines of her essay just chill me to my core. I mean, she says, the true story of America begins here in 1619. This is our story.
We must not flinch. Professor Blain, what about you?
BLAIN: Well, one of my favorite pieces is actually written by Kiese Laymon who is a remarkable writer. And we asked him to write about cotton in the
period of 1804 to 1809. And here is, I think, a very good example of what I meant when I said earlier about just the importance of bringing in a
variety of voices into the narrative, because had we asked a professional historian to write about cotton, they would have been very frustrated with
the 1804-1809 framework and they would say, well, there's no way I can talk about cotton in just five years. I would have to talk about it maybe 20 or
30 or 40-year period or I need to do some broad analysis.
And what Kiese was able to do is take the topic and connect it to his own personal narrative. And ultimately created a quiet remarkable piece. I
think when I read it the first time, it took my breath away. And so, that's one of my favorite pieces.
MARTIN: There are just some shocking stories there. I'm thinking about Herb Boyd's essay, about the prevalence of slavery in New York, for
example. He goes that there were more enslaved black in New York than in Tennessee in the early 18th century. He was tasked with writing about, you
know, 1709 to 1714.
There are well-known writers like Annette Gordon-Reed who writes -- many people will know her work about Sally Hemings and authenticating that
relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. But she writes about just the psychological torture of having to navigate your own freedom
and then the question of who gets left behind, who gets saved and who gets left behind? I mean, just something like remarkable thoughts here. Just
pick some more.
KENDI: To me, one of my most favorite turns in the book is the -- you know, part seven which begins with Adam Serwer who's a -- of course, a
prominent columnist at "The Atlantic" writing on Frederick Douglass. And that being followed by Jamelle Bouie who writes on the civil war. And that
essay being followed by Michael Harriot, who, of course, is from the root, writing on reconstruction. And these three writers, you know -- I mean, for
their respective publications, you know, it really doesn't get any better than they do.
And in their regular writing, they typically -- even though as journalists, they typically use the lens of history to tell stories. And so, you know,
those three, that trio of pieces were just a brilliant trio. And then, you keep moving, it's Tara Hunter. You know, and so, it is -- you know, it just
really goes to show the breadth of the pieces in this text.
MARTIN: I noticed that there was a large number of women writing for this volume, and I wondered whether that was a happy accident or was that
MARTIN: Say more. And say more.
BLAIN: We felt very -- in the very beginning, one of the things that we acknowledged was that generally when we read books on African-American
history, and this is true for decades, we're either reading a narrative by -- you know, that's written by a man and often times, we're reading
narratives that are ultimately framed by white historians.
And so, part of what we wanted to do was to disrupt those two things, to intentionally make sure that every writer would be a person of African
dissent. And then to make sure that we were prioritizing women in particular to disrupt that history, but also to send a larger message of
the significance and the prominence of black women's leadership and the history. And of course, we know this given everything that we have seen in
last couple of years with just even, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, and this powerful movement, you know, founded by three black
So, part of it was making sure that we would this message by being intentional in the way that we selected the writers.
MARTIN: Professor Kendi, you referenced the opening essay line of Nikole Hannah-Jones who's the kind of the creator and the creator vision behind
"The 1619 Project, "The New York Times" project that also documented in its own way, it was a collection of essays documenting the sort of 400 years of
the experience of people, the African-American descent in America. And, obviously, it was enormously well received by some people. You know, the
printed text sold out several times, they had to go through several reprints.
On the other hand, there's been furious backlash to the project. The former president created this 1776 Commission to push for what he called patriotic
education in part as a response to this project. I'm just wondering what you make of the intensity of response to that project, and perhaps to
KENDI: Of course. So, I mean, I think it just goes to show how for many people or I should say, for too many people, they want to teach the history
and they want to teach a current America that is not based in reality and it is not based in evidence and it is not based in fact. And their goal,
they want people to learn history so they can "love America." Not learn America, not know the truth about America, which then leads them to love or
not love whatever feeling they have about their truth.
And then they call a text like ours or other texts indoctrination without necessarily seeing the irony, you know, of what they are stealing, that
indeed, they are trying to indoctrinate people to not know the truth, you know, but to sort of love, you know, a nation.
I personally, you know, through my own work, I have experienced a tremendous amount of backlash, somehow advocating that we have a nation
with policies that lead to equity and that we look upon different groups as equals, somehow that is anti-American or somehow, I am trying to
indoctrinate people too, but it also -- for me, it just shows less about me and more about the people saying that.
MARTIN: Professor Blain, thoughts?
BLAIN: Well, one of the things that I often think about is just the irony that those of us who write about racism will have people turn around and
say, oh, you are actually the racist. You are the racist because you are pointing out social inequities. You are the racist because you're trying to
get others to see that something is wrong with the way that our society operates.
And my sense is that people are always going to be uncomfortable when you ask them to step away from a particular point of view, a perspective that
they have embraced. And even when that perspective is a racist one, they are not going to, you know, open up their hands and say, yes, I'm really to
change. Sometimes that will happen but it's a process.
And so, I am not surprised by the backlash of "The 1619 Project," because similar to our project, it was disrupting decades of narratives that so
many people hold dear. And when you disrupt narratives, people get uncomfortable and they resist. And the hope is that more people will be
open, more people will read, will listen and allow themselves to be transformed.
MARTIN: How do you respond to this argument by some, including some of your peers in the academy that this work is ideological, that it's driven
by sort of an ideology, that was the complaint by some fairly well-known historians to "The 1619 Project" and also to the 1776 Commission as well
that -- which was the creation of the former president? Do you engage that question? How do you respond to it?
BLAIN: Well, you know, history is political. It always has been. And as professional historians, we often debate this notion of objectivity. And it
is a nice concept. And I do think it is important for us to be mindful of facts. And obviously, as historians, we want to make sure that we present
But what I also tell people is that we can't put aside our own ideas and our own thoughts. You know, part of the critical analysis that we do as
historians is to bring to bear our experiences. You know, our life experiences at times.
And so, you know, as black scholars in the academy, we can't simply talk about, for example, police violence in some abstract way, because this is
something that affects all of us. It's -- you know, it's a life and death issue for us. So, we can't approach it without bringing our hearts to it,
you know, as much as we bring our minds to it.
So, I just think it's important to recognize that throughout our history it's always political, whether we're talking about the Dunning School, you
know, and we're talking about this sort of narratives that tried to ignore black people's agency. So, historians who say that it's -- you know, people
are bringing their perspectives, well, yes, people have been doing that for decades.
MARTIN: I want to look back to where we started our conversation. I mean, Professor Kendi, you talked about this as a spiritual work in many ways and
it's also remarkable the history of African people, people with African descent in the United States. It's remarkable on so many levels. It's
remarkable that they -- we have survived and triumphed to the degree that we have.
But yet, you dedicate the book to those lost by COVID, and what an interesting thing to reflect on in the moment. I just wonder what does that
brings up for each of you?
KENDI: Well, I think for me, when we were thinking about this text, you know, we not only wanted to bring together this community, do something
that's never been done before in terms of writing of history, but we also recognize that this community of writers and this text could be picked up
100 years from now or 200 years from now, and people would be like, oh, so, this is what black folks, you know, in the United States were thinking
about, this is how they were remembering their history.
You know, for this to be like a sampling, you know, of what black folks were thinking. And then they will see the dedication that what black folks
were essentially about to face in 2019, you know, was the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic. You know, and, indeed, just as this book is so
beautiful, it was -- around the corner was the ugliness of black people dying at twice the rates of white people from this pandemic, and it really
just -- to me, it encapsulates really the contradiction and that the book shows this incredible joy and pain.
MARTIN: Professor Blain, any final thoughts?
BLAIN: Well, I think, for us, it was impossible to complete this book and not be thinking about the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 as well as the
uprising. Then, in fact, that as I was writing the conclusion, all of these things were on my mind and I felt like it was so important to acknowledge
that even though we have made a lot of progress as a nation, even though we have so much to be proud of when we look at the experiences and the
triumphs of black people in this country, we also needed to recognize that so many problems persist and the struggle still continues.
It simply was impossible for us to avoid addressing these concerns given everything that we were experiencing and also the pain and the grief that
we were dealing with individually and I think that collectively as a nation.
MARTIN: Professor Ibram X. Kendi, Professor Keisha Blain, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
BLAIN: Thank you for having us.
KENDI: Yes. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: And a wonderful coral history indeed. And that is it for now. Thanks for watching. And tune in next week when we'll be joined by the
singer/songwriter, Phoebe Bridgers. Her best-known hit, "Motion Sickness," racked up 63 million streams on Spotify. And she's been nominated for no
less than four Grammy Awards for her new critically acclaimed album, "Punisher." And we'll leave you now with some of that music. Have a good