Stamped from the Beginning Is a Visual History of Anti-Blackness in AmericaMovies Reviews documentaries
Director Roger Ross Williams knows it’s repetition that gives images their power. Adapting Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s academic work for Netflix, Williams’ Stamped from the Beginning is a visual history of (anti-)Blackness in America. Supported by interviews with Black women scholars, Williams’ film animates the outlines of various ideas and figures that have shaded our perceptions and understandings of race in this country.
Stamped from the Beginning is divided into historical-thematic chapters that flow concurrently with America’s rise to prominence as a global power, starting with the 15th century and the “naturalizing [of] racial hierarchies” that helped colonial powers legitimize their positions over those they conquered. With mythologies of both Blackness and whiteness firmly in place, landowners and lawmakers were able to justify chattel slavery on moral, religious, and scientific grounds. Such categorical enslavement forces Black people into an assimilationist psychology that demands strict adherence to white supremacist society and myths. Yet despite the saturation of lies about Black sexuality and supposed criminality, some, like Phillis Wheatley, exposed the falsehoods. It is from their example that we can learn how to undo current social structures and rebuild them for a future that’s better for everyone.
Where Williams excels is in his use of collage. Stamped from the Beginning is a kaleidoscope of images and media that spans the breadth of Western history. By juxtaposing visuals from the past and present, Williams elegantly traces connections and makes bold claims about how little Blackness has changed in the white imagination. Williams and his editorial team arrange their images to support their central claim: That the repetition of images becomes social fact; that the more people see an image, theme or motif repeated, the more they assume it has a basis in reality. Stamped from the Beginning functions best as a primer for how to read racist media. Through animating maps and portraits, the legacy of the past becomes active in the present. We can see the shadow of the minstrel and Jezebel alive in our news media; both are still criminalized like they have been since the 19th century.
Yet, within this broader image-history of Blackness, Williams also sets out to place sexual violence at the heart of slavery’s existence. It’s a welcome addition; however, it still feels shoehorned into a film already trying to convey a complex rhetorical argument about race. We don’t spend nearly enough time on the development of chattel slavery and the post-Revolution American economy for us to thoroughly appreciate how sexual violence was baked into the system. Nor do we have time to fully unpack the repercussions that echo through to today. It’s a valiant attempt to decenter the history of slavery, but such a profound topic gets muddled amongst all the other things Stamped from the Beginning is trying to achieve. It’s very women-focused, drawing on women such as Harriet Jacobs and Ida B. Wells to challenge white supremacist assumptions about Black people while also interviewing Black women scholars about the history of race. However, it feels a bit like Dr. Kendi and The Women. This is still Kendi’s project, after all, so he gets the last word.
Though the film is inspired by Kendi’s 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the ending dips into his more famous work, How To Be An Anti-Racist. It’s a clumsy finale that feels tacked on because of its celebrity, romantically suggesting that an anti-racist society is plausible in only the vaguest and utopian terms without doing the difficult work of explaining how it is to be done.
At the beginning of Stamped from the Beginning, we get an amazingly detailed illustration of how the demand for cheap and self-reproducing labor created menageries of racist iconography to legitimize itself. But as the film winds on, we lose this grounding in the material and become lost in the clouds of ideas. The images become even further decontextualized from their original context. Soon, it’s the images that seem to dictate laws and conditions. Freeing ourselves of racism becomes about dismantling a system of image reproduction rather than the structures of labor that produce them. Williams never names capitalism as complicit nor linked to whiteness, so we’re left to imagine some invisible force shaping these ideas, which does a disservice to the film’s goals as well as the history it’s trying to tell.
Stamped from the Beginning is a bold attempt to animate the racist images that plague the American imagination. There are moments when the past comes alive, and we understand cinema’s ability to teach through the composition and sequencing of images. Had the film trained its sights exclusively on the interplay between American society and its “myths” throughout history, it might have been a much-needed vocabulary lesson. Instead, Williams branches away to talk about sexual violence and anti-racism without providing a complete enough context for the uneducated viewer to understand. Nor does he afford the time to show how these symbols and ideals play out globally as American imperialism has gone abroad throughout its history. Though it opens with a strong and colorful idea, by trying to touch on too many complex ideas at once, the final impression left by Stamped from the Beginning remains smudged and unclear.
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Writer: David Teague
Release Date: November 20, 2023 (Netflix)
B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.