The token image of a white celebrity and a bunch of colored, underprivileged kids serving as the celebrity being all woke and progressive gets rightfully mocked in Stamped from the Beginning. The new Netflix documentary film doesn’t hold anything back as it deconstructs the concept of racism in America. Instead of telling a story, it raises important questions and also comes up with proper, logical answers. Armed with thoughtful animation of many kinds, tons of clippings from popular and accessible movies, and a whole bunch of Black men and women candidly talking about everything uncomfortable, Stamped from the Beginning is a fiery piece of documentary and undoubtedly one of the very best to come out of Netflix in recent times. The credit for that fully goes to its source material, the best-selling book of the same name by author, historian, and anti-racism activist Ibram X. Kendi, as well as Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. Kendi appears as one of the narrators, and thanks to Ross’ expert handling of the subject matter, Stamped from the Beginning soars high. It starts and ends with the much more essential question of what exactly is wrong with Black people, which is, of course, a rhetorical one.
Despite not having a straightforward narrative centered around one particular event, the approach Stamped from the Beginning takes is rather cohesive. After Kendi asks us the all-important question, it takes us to the very beginning, i.e., how it all began. While it is not surprising that slavery and racism in America go hand in hand, I had no idea that the origin of the barbaric practice was not associated with African people. On the contrary, it used to be the financially distressed Eastern European people who were exploited by a rather elite society in Western Europe. The documentary explains how the term “slave” actually comes from “slav.” Only when a Portuguese prince called Henry brings in a group of African people in Europe does the horror of racism truly begin. Henry was a megalomaniac in every possible sense, and he had Gomes Zurara, the equivalent of a spokesperson, who used to write books about how Henry was actually the savior of those African souls. They actually preached ludicrous stories about how these Africans had been living a wild, undisciplined life, and Henry was only doing them a favor by giving them a taste of society. Ya sure!
Things soon move to America, as both the Africans and the backward classes of Europe move to the other side of the Atlantic in search of a better life, only to be enslaved by the white American elite. The documentary looks at the “bacon revolution,” a movement where these Europeans, predominantly white-skinned people, and black-skinned Americans joined hands in their fight against slavery. Ironically, though, the white Europeans eventually found their footing, and once that happened, they did the very same to the African people, who used to be their fellow comrades a while ago.
As I have already mentioned, the documentary Stamped from the Beginning sheds light on the struggle Black women had to go through, thanks to all these. It is a given that women always face the worst of everything that is wrong in any society, and this is one horrific example of that. We are talking about sexual violence here, primarily, which has ruined millions of lives over the years. In the midst of all the darkness, there was one beacon of hope, and that happened to be this fearless woman, Harriet Jacobs. The woman was unfortunate enough to be born into a life of slavery, but she also managed to break free of it and went on to become one of the greatest abolitionists, who eventually wrote a book detailing the abuse that she faced throughout her life. Thanks to Jacobs, many others dared to stand up against evil.
Sexual exploitation is not the only thing Black women have to deal with. In a society that is run by white males, they are looked down upon as an inferior species. To these buffoons, the only purpose of Black women’s existence was physical labour. Naturally, when Phillis Wheatley emerged as the first African-American to write a book of poetry, her credibility as an artist was questioned. She even had to prove that it was she who wrote all the poems in front of a group of men. I like how Stamped from the Beginning chooses to use Wheatley’s poetry as well as texts from Jacobs’ book extensively, which certainly increases its impact on the viewers.
The most important (and interesting) aspect of Stamped from the Beginning has to be how it tries to analyze modern-day racism in America instead of just criticizing it. The barbaric custom of slavery was abolished by the great Abraham Lincoln, but that was more of a logical move by a smart man to build a better economy than a decision fuelled by humanity. Casual racism was always deeply rooted in American culture, thanks to the fundamental idea that Black people are inferior and that they are out there to harm the pure-blood whites. The documentary’s unabashed criticism of pop culture for associating black people with crime and normalizing it through tons of movies, shows, and whatnot should be lauded by the viewers.
The fascinating thing about Stamped from the Beginning is that it dares to dream of a society that is free of racism. It lays down the fact that Black people are just existing to live a life and thrive in it without any intention of causing the whites any harm. In fact, the world would definitely become a better place if racism were completely abolished. Sure, a Netflix documentary film can’t bring forth such a massive change. In fact, the kind of problematic people (and their activities) it targets would probably not even be bothered by its existence. You can’t expect a neo-Nazi loser to watch a documentary and learn anything from it. But the importance of Stamped from the Beginning is undeniable, especially in a post-George Floyd world (yes, that is addressed here). Even after being under the reign of a Black president for eight years, the country still reeks of racism. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness and take whatever possible stand against the wrongs, even if it means supporting a Netflix documentary by watching it.