Many of us probably think we know how racist ideas against black people began or that racism was always part of the human condition. Director Roger Ross Williams challenges these notions with his adaptation of Ibram X. KendiThe book “Stamped from the beginning.” Drawing on the testimony of black women scholars and Kendi’s research, the director (whose previous credits include “Life, Animated” and “Cassandro”) begins by posing a provocative question: “What’s wrong with black people?” By the end of the film, Williams relentlessly tears down the prudishness inherent in thinking the answer is simple or clear. Even if it is.
True to its title, “Stamped From the Beginning” seeks to explain the origin of anti-blackness. According to activist Angela Davis, one of the esteemed talking heads who lend credibility to the film: “It’s not about skin color or hair quality. “It’s about slavery.” This is how Europeans justified the transatlantic slave trade: by portraying Africans as bestial, ignorant, and evil. The word “black” gradually becomes a linguistic analogy for these traits. Using art, fiction, and religion, they justified the enslavement of Africans as natural from the beginning. The film also addresses the racial schism that gave rise to the concept of whiteness, in which white people were considered inherently superior and therefore deserved to obtain privileges based precisely on that.
From there, Williams provides historical evidence for these ideas. As a filmmaker, he knows that relying on logical academics presenting sober ideas may not keep audiences interested. It doesn’t matter how persuasive the arguments are or how well-known and trustworthy the scholars may be. So she adds distinct, beautifully rendered animation to revitalize the narrative. She also includes archival footage and recent viral moments to provide familiar context to the concepts presented.
These elements are most striking in the section that tells the story of the 16th century black poet Phillis Wheatley. She was a black slave interrogated by white men who could not believe she could have written the poems attributed to her. As the animation shows Wheatley, the camera pans to the faces of black female academics and to archival images of Ania Hill in the 1990s and, more recently, Chief Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. No words need to be spoken. Black women always had to prove themselves and still have to today. Depicted with humor are Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory proclamations on race or, as activist Lynae Vanee says, “Thomas Jefferson was full of shit.”
Throughout the process, Williams adds recognizable images from pop culture. It draws on beloved films and television shows, combining these examples with voice-over testimonials that force fans to reckon with their appreciation and admiration: a necessary examination of what these images really represented, inviting new conclusions when viewed. examine again within this context. Less successful in employing an actor to play Ida B. Wells when “Stamped From the Beginning” tells the story of her coming out and documenting the lynching of black people in the early 20th century. The material is serious, but that interlude shows the limitations of narrative interpretation within a documentary.
The conclusions of “Stamped From the Beginning” may seem obvious as the audience watches the film. The film is not intended to present radical or new beliefs. It lulls the audience into believing that it is only providing historical context. However, in the end, it reveals the myths, distortions, and invented fallacies that have been presented as truth for centuries. And that’s the most radical thing I could have done.