In the age of banning books with “woke” ideology and removing critical race theory education from schools, there are forces fighting to make sure that not only is this important education available, but that it’s accurate, hard hitting, and impactful. One such warrior is Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote 2016’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
This extremely comprehensive and meticulously researched National Book Award recipient explores not only the state of race, but also its true origins and how the construct has shaped the way people view Black people through the country. The book does a deep dive into the lives of five American abolitionists and free thinkers from Cotton Mather to Angela Davis. Well received and extremely successful, the tome spawned two remixes, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and Stamped (For Teens): A Graphic Novel Version. Now it’s getting another interpolation in the form of a documentary by Netflix.
The name of the documentary comes from a quote by Jefferson Davis while he argued that funding education for Black Americans was a bad idea. The future president of the Confederacy maintained that, “This government was not founded by negroes nor for negros,” and “the inequality of the white and black races has been stamped from the beginning.” It really does give another meaning to the idea of “Home of the free, land of the brave.”
Directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, the documentary debuted at TIFF in 2023. The film explores not only the racist tropes that brainwashed America for centuries, but also the origins that are rooted in sustaining and keeping ownership of power. Outside of Kendi, all of the talking heads are women academics. Including Angela Davis, Autumn Womack, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Brittney Cooper, Carol Anderson, Dorothy Robers, Elizabeth Hinton, Honorée Jeffers, Imani Perry, Jennifer L. Morgan, Kellie Carter-Jackson, Lynae Vanee, Ruha Benjamin, and Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers.
These women are activists, political figures, professors, scientists, historians, sociologists, and more. At the beginning of Stamped from the Beginning, a question is asked: What’s wrong with being Black? It’s met with the type of incredulity that is masked in knowledge as to why the question exists. It’s not “What’s wrong with Black people?” but instead “What does everyone else think is wrong with Black people?” Over a brisk but well appointed 85-minute runtime, these talking heads along with inventive storytelling devices, seek to offer an answer.
Rogers is well known for producing projects that elevate Black history. From The 1619 Project to High on the Hog, both docs change the way viewers understood Black contributions to American culture. He decided to approach Stamped from the Beginning in two unique ways. The first is the use of music and culture throughout. The music ranged from spirituals to modern day hip hop and neo soul. There was no code switching to be found. The enigmatic Honorée Jeffers told a story about how she was chastised for the way she talked. She was told she was too brusque and at times even vulgar. She simply laughed and told them to look at her “mothaf*&%ing resume!”
That type of boldness is present throughout and backed with the same sort of academic knowledge and experience that all of the women possess. The other convention used was the animation styles. As a story was told, it was shown through typical animation styles. The original telling of the shift from indentured servanthood to Black chattel slavery is told in the style of animated, pencil sketches. The story of Phyllis Wheatley is told through sepia tones and caricatures. Each style subtly authenticates the time period and transports the viewers.
Stamped from the Beginning highlights multitudinous struggles, again primarily focusing on women and the unique (often more demanding and detrimental) ways that slavery affected Black women. Phyllis Wheatley was a poet whose skill perplexed white men so much, they demanded she stand before a council of eight men and prove that she did the writing herself. While she eventually convinced the panel that it was her words in her voice, it also set a dangerous precedent of Black women having to prove themselves along with white people believing they are entitled to proof.
Each section exposed a cycle in which Black people would excel, and white fright would cause retaliation. The section on Harriet Jacobs spoke of the sexual assault women would endure at the hand of their masters. NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells documented lynchings throughout the south and made them known to citizens across the country. The actions of these women changed the course of history for Black Americans, but still have yet to fully break the construct of racism.
One of the biggest lessons taught in Stamped from the Beginning is the fact that racism is a construct, meaning it was created. There’s no scientific basis to race, or that being one race over another causes inferiority or superiority. The film goes as far back as King Richard and how he commissioned Gomes de Zurara to pen a biography. One that portrayed Africans as savages in need of saving by the good King Richard. It also spoke about how the word “slave” liverally means “Slav” or someone having Slavic origins, indicating the status of many indentured servants. These forced laborers worked alongside Black slaves. It was discovered that Black slaves were more valuable because it was harder for them to run away and fit among everyone else. The film speaks about Bacon’s Rebellion when Indentured servants and Black slaves fought together going all the way to Virginia’s capital.
Throughout a course of events beautifully told in the documentary, Black slaves were separated and the process of devaluation and dehumanization properly began. The rollercoaster the film takes you through is filled with laughter, shock, and tears. Each representative drives the point home that if racism is truly a construct (while offering the many ways in which it certainly is), then it can be dismantled.
Ultimately the desire is for the film to be shown in schools where kids can understand the ramifications of discrimination and the long term negative effects of racial supremacy. It’s a heady task and one worth taking as the truth of the myth of slavery is long overdue.
Stamped from the Beginning will premiere in select theaters November 10th and on Netflix, November 20th.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com