Challenging prevailing notions about the origins of racist anti-Black ideas, director Roger Ross Williams embarks on a thought-provoking journey with his adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “Stamped From the Beginning.” Instead of accepting the assumption that racism has always been an intrinsic part of human nature, Williams raises a daring question: “What is wrong with Black people?” The film, enriched by testimonies from Black female scholars and Kendi’s meticulous research, dismantles the simplistic belief in a straightforward answer, even if one exists.
In alignment with its title, “Stamped From the Beginning” delves into the roots of anti-Blackness. Drawing from the insights of activist Angela Davis, the film highlights that the issue is not merely about skin color or hair texture but stems from the historical context of slavery. Europeans justified the transatlantic slave trade by depicting Africans as beastly and evil, gradually associating the word “black” with these negative attributes. The narrative unfolds to explore the emergence of the concept of whiteness, where white superiority became the basis for claiming privileges.
Williams skillfully weaves historical evidence into the film, recognizing the need to engage the audience beyond academic discourse. Introducing beautifully crafted animations, archival footage, and recent viral moments, he brings familiarity to the concepts presented. Notably impactful is the portrayal of 16th-century Black poet Phillis Wheatley, facing skepticism about her authorship from white men. The juxtaposition with Black female scholars and archival footage underscores the enduring need for Black women to prove their worth, a struggle that persists today.
Incorporating pop culture images, Williams prompts viewers to confront the implications of their recognition and admiration within a fresh context. While successful in this endeavor, the film encounters a narrative challenge in the portrayal of Ida B. Wells, using an actor to depict her pivotal role in exposing and documenting the lynching of Black people in the early 20th century. The gravity of the material clashes with the limitations of narrative interpretation in a documentary format.
“Stamped From the Beginning” may initially seem to present familiar conclusions, subtly guiding the audience through historical context. However, it ultimately unveils the myths, distortions, and fallacies that have masqueraded as truth for centuries. Far from advocating radical or new beliefs, the film achieves its most radical impact by challenging ingrained perceptions and revealing the constructed narratives that have endured through time.