Roger Ross Williams opens (and will close) his adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s history of racist thought, Stamped from the Beginning, with the question: What is wrong with black people? The query is addressed to Dr. Kendi, and a group of black women academics and activists from whom we will hear throughout the film. It is a question that may sound offensive, but it reflects ideas that are deeply embedded in our society and our history.
The film traces the history of racism, which we discover predates even Columbus. But it certainly reached great heights throughout American history. Racism rests on ideas that there is something fundamentally different and inferior about black people. Such ideas have been cultivated within European and American culture for hundreds of years. White supremacy has defined the way we regard race. Even though many have worked to break down those ideas, we clearly see the strength of racism has barely been lessened.
The film features a number of black women who relate much of the history—and present situation—of racism. The only black man we hear from is Dr. Kendi. (I’m unsure why more black men weren’t included.) The film also seemed to have a slight skew towards women’s experience of racism.
Among the topics the film covers are: The invention of blackness; the invention of whiteness, the myth of assimilation, the myth of hyper-sexuality, the myth of the white savior, the myth of the black criminal, and the truth of an anti-racist society. There are side trips to consider people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Phyllis Wheatley (an enslaved woman poet), and others.
Kendi’s book, which was awarded a National Book Award, carries the subtitle, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. At 92 minutes, this film adaptation can never be seen as a complete version of the 600 page book. But its pace allows for the film to look into several aspects of racism and the ways it continues to infect our culture. At the screening I attended at AFIFest, it was mentioned that it was hoped that this film would find its way into school curriculums throughout the country. (Which would be a good thing, but I’m sure there will be a backlash in many places.)
While I consider myself aware of the insidiousness of racism, there were parts of this film that gave me new information and new questions to consider in my own life. I make an effort to be informed not only about racism in general, but in the ways it lives within me. This film did serve that purpose. But I wonder to what extent the audience that will see this film are not the people who most need to see it. The goal of this film is to move us towards a more anti-racist society. The last few minutes of the film focus on that idea, although in a very nebulous manner. It is a helpful addition to the anti-racist toolbox.
Stamped from the Beginning is in select theaters beginning November 10, and streaming on Netflix beginning November 20.
Photos courtesy of Netflix.