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‘This film is needed now more than ever’: exploring the roots of US racism | Documentary films

For 18 white men deemed “the most respectable characters in Boston”, it defied credulity. How could Phillis Wheatley, an African-born Black teenager sold into slavery, have produced such refined, exquisite poetry? The sceptics set about interrogating her to determine whether she was the true author. She passed the test and her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 with the assistance of wealthy abolitionists.

Wheatley’s divine spark destroyed a myth of Black inferiority that generations of white people had painstakingly constructed to justify slave labour. Two and a half centuries later, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old African American woman, became the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement is already facing new backlash.

It’s a familiar rhyme in Stamped from the Beginning, a Netflix documentary by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, based on Ibram X Kendi’s bestselling book of the same name and aimed at a global audience. The film opens and closes with the question: “What’s wrong with Black people?”

In between, it explores how anti-Black racist ideas were created, spread and deeply rooted in American society, often via popular culture, making a case that the history of racism is the history of power. It uses a vivid animation process that blends live action with the art of the era along with music composed by Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur, brothers and longtime collaborators with Janelle Monáe.

When it comes to talking heads, the usual suspects are out. Apart from Kendi himself, Stamped from the Beginning has an all-female line-up of Black academics and activists including Angela Davis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Jennifer Morgan and Stephanie Jones-Rogers.

As comedian Trevor Noah put in his parting shot from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show last year: “If you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women.”

Williams, whose credits include The 1619 Project, High on the Hog, Music by Prudence, Life, Animated, Cassandro and Love to Love You, Donna Summer, recalls via Zoom: “It was a very deliberate choice because when I got handed a list of academics and experts and historians, there were all the usual names on there that you always see.

“But I noticed the pattern that a lot of the work around racism was being done by Black women at Howard and Harvard and Princeton and Yale so I had the idea why don’t we only use Black women to tell this story? Black women were always the forefront of the resistance movement and, in my eyes, never get their due.”

He adds: “There was resistance to that and I held steady because to me it makes a huge statement in the film. Not only do we feature the stories of Black women like Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs and Ida B Wells but it’s Black women who have been on the front lines fighting this war.”

The women featured in the film speak with a bracing candour unlikely to be found on PBS or the BBC. One describes Thomas Jefferson, the third US president who enslaved more than 600 people during his lifetime, as “full of shit”.

Williams explains: “To all the women participants, I said I don’t want to hear your academic speak, I don’t want you to talk the talking points, I want you to talk about this from a very personal perspective, I want you to talk about how it makes you feel emotionally, how this work you’re doing, how this history affects you as a person. They all were very frank and honest. There were tears. There was a lot of emotion and that was important to me.

Stamped from the Beginning emphasises the centrality of rape and sexual violence in the experience of enslaved women. Kendi weighs in: “People are familiar with enslaved women being raped but I don’t think people are familiar with the extent of sexual violence. As Stephanie Jones-Rogers stated, the violence of slavery was a sexual one – you can’t separate sexual violence from the violence of slavery.

“We tried to show that the way that enslavers sought to justify their pervasive sexual violence was through the idea of Black people being hypersexual. That’s where the myth of Black hypersexuality comes in to cover up who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

“Even as Black women were the victims of sexual violence, to present it as if they were coming on to their rapist. That was a pivotal section in the film and certainly that is still resonant today as Black women continue to be hypersexualized and even Black men are hypersexualised.”

It is just one example of how racist narratives and tropes were constructed to justify and rationalise the status quo. Kendi continues: “Because of these racist ideas, we’re constantly covering up or excusing or justifying violence or policies or power structures. Once you see through these ideas, once you unlearn these racist ideas, then that allows you to see the violence and see the racist policies and see the structures and systems and conditions that are actually harming Black people.

Wheatley, who spent most of her life enslaved and in service to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston, represented an anomaly in the matrix of white supremacy. She learned to read and write and, by 14, had begun to write poetry that would soon be published and circulated among the elites in America and Britain. Her gift shook the moral universe of the white ruling class.

Stamped from the Beginning Netflix press publicity still image
Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Kendi elaborates: “Phillis Wheatley came of age and was writing poetry in the 1760s and the 1770s, when even people like Thomas Jefferson were writing that Black people’s intelligence was not anything more than elementary. It was widely believed that Black people could only essentially be labourers to justify enslavement.

“Here came along this Black girl and ultimately this Black woman who was not only writing poetry but some of the finest poetry of her day in the middle of the American Revolution. What I think people are going to see from from Phillis Wheatley is that she was the founding mother of this nation because she was truly fighting for equality.”

The founding fathers, however, emerge less creditably. Jefferson believed that Black people were racially inferior and “as incapable as children”. Yet he fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, during a relationship spanning nearly four decades. Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence with its words “all men are created equal”, embodies the contradictions of America.

Kendi adds: With Thomas Jefferson, we tried to show his internal paradox. On the one hand, writing a declaration of independence and ushering in this projected American creed of freedom and marriage equality while enslaving over 600 people over the course of his lifetime.

“Even more specifically in the film we show on the one hand he was speaking out against interracial sex but then engaging in it himself privately. That contradiction and the paradox and saying one thing and doing another in many ways is at the heart of the United States, particularly around the issue of racist ideas, because on the one hand, Americans say that this is the land of equality whereas racist ideas about hierarchy are persistent.

Stamped From the Beginning was National Book Award winner in 2016. His follow-up, How to Be an Antiracist, became a best seller in 2019 and catapulted him to celebrity the following year when the police murder of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis, sparked mass protests. For one long, hot summer there was a whiff of revolution in the air as politicians, corporate leaders, educators and entertainers promised to embrace the principles of antiracism.

But the world became consumed by distractions old and new. The Black Lives Matter signs that graced many gardens were gradually replaced by Ukrainian flags. The US Congress failed to reach a bipartisan agreement on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Police shot and killed at least 1,096 people – a record – last year, according to a count by the Washington Post.

And as Stamped from the Beginning chronicles, progress is usually met with a ferocious backlash. Republican politicians have moved to ban school teachers from emphasising the role of systemic racism in shaping the nation; Florida even decided to teach that some Black people benefited from slavery because it taught them useful skills. A whitewashing of history is under way.

Williams comments: “The racial reckoning in America, sadly, is over. People have forgotten about this moment; they’ve definitely forgotten about George Floyd. Even the media, all this stuff that they commissioned in the wake of George Floyd, they’re not interested in commissioning that stuff anymore, which is why Stamped is so important because they are still killing Black people and there is still police violence against Black people.

“More than ever the country is divided and this film is needed now more than ever in this very tumultuous and difficult time in America. We’re out here doing the work and informing people. Luckily we have a platform like Netflix because Dr Kendi is probably one of the most banned, if not the most banned, author in America but you can’t ban Netflix. Netflix is in every home so it’s going to get to the people and hopefully spark conversation that is so sorely needed, especially now in this country.”

Stamped from the Beginning Netflix press publicity still image
Photograph: Netflix

Kendi chimes in: “In 2020 about a thousand Americans were being killed by the police. A thousand Americans continue to be killed by the police each year. So still about three Americans a day were killed by the police and those Americans are disproportionately Black, brown and indigenous and so I think the truth is many people in 2020 were demonstrating and trying to build momentum to eliminate police violence, to completely reimagine how to make our community safe.

“But, unfortunately, instead of people recognising police violence as something that was dangerous, people have instead looked at those of us who are identifying the problem of police violence as the real danger.

“The irony is that similarly, as we showed in the film, after the civil war, when when Black people started creating HBCUs [Historically black colleges and universities] and making a life for themselves and building their homes and building their organisations and demonstrating that they in no way were inferior, they faced not only a backlash but their efforts to own businesses, their efforts to wield political power was seen as a problem, just as similar efforts today have been problematised and demonised.”

Kendi himself has not been immune in his role as a public influencer. The right accused him and Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who oversaw the 1619 Project, of indoctrinating children with divisive ideas. The Center for Antiracist Research, set up by Boston University in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, has been forced to scale back under Kendi’s leadership.

More than half of the center’s 36 employees are being laid off, the New York Times reported in September, while its budget is being cut in half. The paper noted that funding for racial justice causes dwindled as Floyd’s murder faded from the headlines – but also that the university is conducting an inquiry into complaints from staff members, including with regard to the center’s management culture (a recent investigation concluded that Kendi’s center did manage funds properly despite earlier accusations).

Kendi says now: “To me the story was that in the last three years, not only have those opportunities for these types of projects dwindled, not only have those of us who are engaging in anti-racist work been attacked, not only have our books been banned, but organisations aren’t being nearly at the level they were in 2020.

“There’s been a massive decline which has led to many organisations having to pivot and downsize and restructure like ours has. It’s part of a larger trend that we’re hoping this film will ultimately reverse so people can yet again realise what the real problem is, which is not Black people.”

Williams, who has served on the board of governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, sees that same trend infecting his own professional world. He says: “Hollywood, like the rest of America, had a brief moment where they wanted to explore and have a racial reckoning and now they’ve forgotten about it.

“They’ve abandoned that and so abandoned Black Americans not only in that they’re not greenlighting and commissioning work like this but they’ve also let go of all their diversity hires that they hired around George Floyd.”

In such a climate, Williams contends, films such as Stamped from the Beginning can open the industry’s eyes to the harm it is causing. “I hope they’re open to watching the film. I hope the executives in Hollywood, the people who make the decisions, watch Stamped from the beginning and it makes them think about the decisions they make going forward. There is a resistance movement in Hollywood as well as in the rest of America and we will fight on.”

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