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‘Stamped From the Beginning’ Review: Examining Racist Thought

The documentary “Stamped From the Beginning,” based on the 2016 book by Ibram X. Kendi, begins with a trick question and ends with a sage retort.

“What’s wrong with Black people?” asks the director Roger Ross Williams of the film’s heady roster of Black female scholars as they consider the ways in which the slave trade created anti-Black racism and, as Kendi argues, not the reverse. The formidable interviewees include the novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers; the historian Elizabeth Hinton; and the activist and scholar Angela Davis. When Davis discusses the work “not done” at slavery’s end to retool “the entire society so that it might be possible for previously enslaved individuals to be free and equal,” her words are as muscularly poignant as they are pointed.

The subtitle of Kendi’s book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” And Williams employs several methods to distill the National Book Award-winning tome’s ambitions as it moves from the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, back to the Portuguese enslavement of Africans and forward to the rise of Trumpism in reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama.

In addition to interviews and archival images, film clips and news footage, Williams (“Cassandro” “Life, Animated”) leans into animation. In an engaging gambit, the director utilizes a mix of visual effects, painting and collage to tell the stories of the poet Phillis Wheatley; the author Harriet Jacobs and the journalist and anti-lynching pioneer Ida B. Wells. In a film brimming with visual gestures, these mini portraits of anti-racists are among its most memorable.

Stamped From the Beginning
Rated R for some violent content, language, drug content and nude images. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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