A pointed look to the past to better understand the present, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ Stamped from the Beginning is a tremendous work of scholarship and education. An examination of the history of racist and white supremacist ideologies and the fictions that form and sustain them, this adaptation of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book of the same name puts to rest the myth that America is living in a “post-racial” society after the historic election of its first black president. As Williams, Kendi, and other activists, writers, educators, and professionals point out during Stamped from the Beginning, every leap forward for people of colour often encounters a newly fortified wall of white supremacist push back in response.
Stamped from the Beginning (which Kendi succinctly subtitled The Definitive History of Racist Ideas) isn’t easily adaptable into a straight forward film, even in a documentary format. Much of Williams film is comprised of talking head interviews with speakers well versed on the subjects, subtexts, and historical events being discussed: Kendi, Dr. Angela Davis, Dr. Ruha Benjamin, Lynae Vanee, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Raquel Willis, just to name a few. Williams (Life, Animated, God Loves Uganda, Cassandro) and Kendi know precisely what questions to ask and the people best equipped to answer them. Everyone speaks with passion and a deep wealth of knowledge, but it’s a credit to Williams that the director knows exactly how to keep Stamped from the Beginning from feeling like a filmed series of lectures.
Assisted greatly by documentary editor David Teague (Between the World and Me, Cutie and the Boxer, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields), Stamped from the Beginning makes great use of montage and painterly styled recreations of major moments in the lives of some of the and trailblazing personalities the interview subjects are discussing. Whatever someone brings up in their examinations of racist history, there’s a clip, photograph, recording, or piece of writing that Teague and Williams can dredge up to include in one of the film’s many outstandingly conceived and thoughtfully arranged montages. It creates an indisputable walk through a history that many settlers of European descent tend to put out of their minds in favour of more flowery and false depictions of racial equality and tolerance. After all – as the film points out – how many people want to willingly think about some of their ancestors potentially being enslavers (or slaves themselves, if they go back far enough in history), lynchers, segregationists, or rapists? There are literally centuries worth of racist leaning media at Williams and Teague’s disposal, and together they leave no stones unturned.
Whenever Williams needs to delve further into the lives of some of the historical figures brought up by his interview subjects in greater detail, the director brings the words of those no longer around to speak for themselves to life via half-animated, half-acted recreations, giving visual accompaniment to the works of poet Phillis Wheatley, slave narrative chronicler Harriet Jacobs, and journalist Ida B. Wells. It also helps to recreate historic events like Bacon’s Rebellion, a revolt that brought white and black slaves together, united under a common cause. The recreations often take on a kind of PBS-styled documentary tone, but there’s no denying that these passages are adding a lot of context and personality to Stamped from the Beginning as a whole.
It’s also refreshing that this look at America’s history with race and inequality uses so many female voices, both as interview subjects and to profile those within the struggle who have built lasting legacies. The presence of strong, intelligent, and erudite black women throughout Stamped from the Beginning allows Williams and Kendi to speak even more powerfully to the sort of physical, sexual, and emotional violence that people of colour suffer through, and for which female identifying people disproportionately become victims. These women are the keepers of important parts of history that become even more forgotten than those of their male counterparts, and their prominent inclusion in Stamped from the Beginning allows for a larger, starker image of racism to come into sharper focus.
But the voices and technical accomplishments of Stamped from the Beginning are only one part of Williams’ thoughtfully composed adaptation. There’s also a distinct flow and purpose when it comes to Williams walking viewers through a variety of histories. Each section of the film and every topic links together perfectly throughout. By starting out with a discussion of how blackness was commodified during the early days of the slave trade, Williams can then discuss how Europeans sought to reduce all people of colour into a single race, and how this gave rise to white beliefs that whiteness was superior. From there, Williams can look at how blackness became “the face of criminality,” and the ways that the contributions of people of colour are often forgotten about and robbed of their agency and legacy. That leads to a greater look at how the history of racism is really an examination of power. If people of colour and white identifying persons were to ever get on the same page and speak up for common issues, it would be a terrifying threat to the white elites that control so much of America’s power.
And in the end, that’s what Stamped from the Beginning keeps coming back to: the issue of power, and the falsehoods that have provided the historic bedrock for inequality to remain and adapt over time. For each step forward, there is a step backwards because any meaningful and lasting change requires a massive shift in power. That requires an examination of centuries of racist thinking and unpacking what all of it means and how it continues to impact the world. A cynic might think that there’s no way such a massive shift could ever take place, but a work as strong as Stamped from the Beginning makes one hope that somewhere out there, someone is getting the message.
Stamped from the Beginning streams on Netflix starting Monday, November 20, 2023.
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