THE STORY – A hybrid documentary/scripted feature based on Dr. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas.”
THE CAST – Angela Davis, Alexa Rachelle Jennings, Ibram X. Kendi, Lynae Vanee, Julian Joseph, Paisley Rose Carswell, Elizabeth Hinton, Carol Anderson & Jennifer Morgan
THE TEAM – Roger Ross Williams (Director), Ibram X. Kendi & David Teague (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes
It doesn’t take much to take a peek out into the world and see the seemingly unending turmoil that is taking place. Much of this conflict originates in centuries-old foundations that have caused such topics of discussion to be contorted with a frustrating complexity. Even issues with a clear line of sight in terms of where one should morally fall are baked into a complicated history that can muddy the waters even further. “Stamped from the Beginning” aims to dissect the very broad topic of racism in the United States and what its impact on a divided nation has wrought. Like many exercises that have come before, it presents a fascinating discussion even when it occasionally may paint with too broad a brush to deliver its points.
The film starts with the intentionally provocative question, “What is wrong with Black people?” It’s a remark meant to trigger the analysis of what has caused so much violence and antagonism directed toward this particular group of people in the general society. A host of scholars and activists provide their commentary that traces this animosity back to the early days of slavery and how perceptions of those enslaved were forced to create a separate class that was easy to vilify. This journey is charted all the way through the modern era when new forms of discrimination are adopted in horrifying ways. Yet, perseverance and self-determination are the tools needed to combat such insidious behavior. The outline for a strong community is presented against the tidal wave of hate that never ceases but can be conquered.
What is showcased is quite an engaging study of history, one that is taken from the book by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book of the same name. The trek through time will often highlight aspects of the past, like a history lesson, brought to life in animated sequences that serve as recreations of these events and figures. The animation may not be the most vibrant, and when it chooses to utilize real actors instead, it may not seem quite as impactful, but it is a nice illustration of the explored themes. The history of Black people’s oppression is demonstrated, but so is the tenacity to fight against such injustice. Director Roger Ross Williams gathers this information in a way to contextualize racism in America, especially in how media portrayals heavily influence mass indoctrination as well. The most intriguing dissection attacks the very nature of assimilation and its use as a form of domination. The film has a compelling narrative to craft that reveals the complex layers at play in an engrossing manner.
At the same time, one also gets the sense that Williams doesn’t have complete control over this structure. The film will often jump back and forth between different time periods, utilizing modern footage to juxtapose against a talking point from the past. The intention is obvious as a means to bridge the gap between the two timelines and emphasize their similarities. However, this method just disrupts the rhythm. The timeline being sketched is scattered and unfocused, which is also not helped by the expansive generalization it is sometimes compelled to fall upon. It’s a complicated issue with many gradations, all of which are inherently captivating. For the most part, the film can keep its audience engrossed through this testimony, but the larger connections it attempts to make are ungainly in its execution. The overall throughline is weakly assembled, even though one can appreciate the lecture being given and the content it espouses.
It is an alluring notion that “Stamped from the Beginning” looks to uncover. Detailing the history of racism adapted from a non-fiction book provides the infrastructure for this exploration. The observations are enthralling, and the ways to animate these perspectives, both literally and figuratively, are impressive. Still, one wishes for a cleaner demonstration that was more streamlined in its exhibition and had more interest in the nuances at play. However, what is shown is an absorbing piece that inspects the harsh reality of American history. The efforts could have been more stimulating, but the investigation is valuable all the same.