film An Anti-Racist Cinematic Masterpiece: Stamped From the Beginning
The screen adaptation of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America directed by Roger Ross Williams, the first African American director to win an Academy Award, is a cinematic masterpiece. Stamped from the Beginning – which derives its title from a despicably racist 1860 speech delivered by Senator Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy – is one of the greatest anti-racist nonfiction motion pictures ever made, in terms of film form and content.
Stamped goes back in time to before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began in Europe, and shows how racism was a construct to rationalize the brutality of slavery on the grounds that Europeans were inherently superior to Africans. Blacks replaced Eastern European Slavs (the film contends that term is the source of the word “slave”) for forced labor because due to the color of their skin, it was harder for escaped Africans to blend in with the white population.
When slavery was exported to the “New World,” white indentured servants were given more benefits than Blacks after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, wherein slaves and indentured servants united across ethnic lines on a class basis to overthrow the plantation elite in Virginia. By endowing poor white workers with “white skin privileges” the ruling class aimed to divide laborers racially.
The film focuses on Phillis Wheatley, a Black woman who before the American Revolution, had to prove to incredulous Massachusetts whites that she really wrote the poems bearing her byline at a public hearing. The crusading anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells is also highlighted, as are other African American writers.
All this is interwoven in a highly innovative manner by Williams and Emmy-nommed screenwriter David Teague (who’d co-written the 2020 screen version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for HBO) with a captivatingly impressive visual verve and sonic sensibility, which brings the subject matter vividly alive. Along with its original interviews with talking heads, Stamped deploys a painterly animation style, a graphic style redolent of each period being depicted, reenactments, archival/news clips of significant figures including Reverend King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, etc. The production looks like a filmic version of a graphic novel (there is also a graphic novel version of Kendi’s book). Williams won the Oscar in the Best Documentary, Short Subjects category in 2010 for Music by Prudence and was also nominated in 2017 for Best Documentary Feature in 2017 for Life, Animated – he should win in that category for Stamped at the next Academy Awards ceremony.