Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s groundbreaking work, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” initially published in 2016, has taken on various forms, with this 92-minute film emerging as one of the most compelling adaptations. In the company of Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-winning “13th” and Elvis Mitchell’s wonderfully idiosyncratic “Is That Black Enough for You?!?”, it further cements Netflix’s standing as a hub for impactful Black history documentaries.
The film distinguishes itself by centering Black women’s perspectives on the history of American racism. With the exception of Kendi, every expert commentator in the film is a Black woman, a noteworthy choice that adds depth to the narrative. The inclusion of iconic movement leader Angela Davis is a coup, even if her contributions are minimal. The film shines with insights from dynamic police reform advocate Brittany Packnett Cunningham and poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose vocal intonation becomes a powerful tool for commentary on the intricate intersection of race, class, and gender.
This feminine lens injects fresh life into familiar themes by highlighting the stories of overlooked figures. Rather than focusing on Frederick Douglass, the film delves into the narrative of enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley. Instead of centering on W.E.B. Du Bois, we learn about his NAACP contemporary, Ida B Wells. While Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” inevitably makes an appearance, Little Simz’s “Introvert” adds an even more potent dimension.
The film’s ability to swiftly traverse extensive territories of racial thinking is aided by its captivating soundtrack. When the theoretical discussions become dense, the film grabs our attention with a rhythmically edited montage of pop culture provocations—Confederate flag bikinis, stereotypical depictions of Black women, images of crack-smokers with jerry curls—enhanced by animations from LA’s Awesome + Modest. These animations bring historical episodes to life with a flair that surpasses traditional dramatic re-enactments.
Director Roger Ross Williams impressively maintains a cohesive thread throughout this blend of revelry and stirring speeches, connecting a senator’s 1860 speech to viral TikToks featuring white women calling the police on Black individuals in 2020. While the film chronicles the beginning of the journey, the prospect of the US reaching a point where “existing while Black” is not deemed a crime still appears distant.