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.
This cinematic tour de force proceeds to tell the story of racism through the colonial period, the
Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights/Black Power movements and up to
today’s Black Lives Matter struggles against police brutality and more. To do so, Kendi and
Williams interview prominent female African American academics, including the legendary
onetime political prisoner Angela Davis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Carol Anderson, Brittany
Packnett Cunningham and Jennifer L. Morgan.
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.
As a film historian, my favorite vignettes were brilliantly edited montages of movie/TV/
advertising clips that show how Blacks have been dehumanized via depictions in mass mediums
controlled by the dominant majority culture, including a scene of a libidinous freed slave
pursuing blonde Southern belle Mae Marsh in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War/Reconstruction
era epic The Birth of a Nation, arguably the most racist Hollywood feature ever made. But with
Stamped from the Beginning, the much-vaunted Griffith, “the man who invented Hollywood,”
has been bested by Black filmmakers, who are armed not only with superior techniques, but with
something Griffith did not possess when he directed The Birth of a Nation: The stamp of truth.
As the national debate over American history rages, Stamped is essential viewing, and starting
November 20 it can be seen on Netflix.
Executive producer/author Dr. Kendi, producer Alisa Payne and executive producer Mara Brock
Akil attended the October 26 screening at AFI FEST and did a post-screening Q&A with
Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, about Stamped from
the Beginning. BRAVO!!!
For more info about AFI FEST 2023 and tickets see: