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CIFF 2023: Stamped from the Beginning

October 17, 2023


Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams has become quite prolific over the years. Just this year saw the release of the HBO MAX documentary “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” he directed and Hulu’s “The 1619 Project”, a limited series he served as executive producer on as well as directed two episodes, which connected the centrality of slavery in history with an unflinching account of brutal racism that endures in so many aspects of American life today. That feels like a precursor to his next documentary for Netflix, “Stamped from the Beginning”. The the engaging and truthful film premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival and makes a stop at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) this moth, before it drops on the streaming platform next month.

Based on the New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner of the same name by Dr. Ibram X Kendi, the documentary exposes the long-standing and powerful presence of anti-black racism in American history. Williams affectively utilizes different approaches to communicate the subject matter in a unique and engaging way.  By incorporating animated sequences of historical figures and moments from U.S. history, Williams provides a provocative viewing experience that rises above typical talking heads moments. At the same time, the contributors interviewed serve to guide and enlighten viewers, with a solid assembly of female academics and activists like Dr. Angela Davis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Dr. Jennifer L. Morgan, and Dr. Kendi.



Williams not only takes a sobering look at American history, but also breaks down where the nation’s racist trappings originated from and who were the groundbreaking figures that fought to shine a stark light on the truth. Where did the terms “white” and “black” came from? How and why have such concepts been perpetuated over the years? The way in which these questions are answered may not be surprising to some, but for those naive to history and/or are blind to the present, Williams offers some blunt truths. There’s also a focus on the important achievements of Black women thinkers such as 18th C. poet Phillis Wheatley, memoirist Harriet Jacobs, and journalist Ida B. Wells, which Williams contrasts with the whitewashed legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

“Swamped from the Beginning” doesn’t hold back on the damaging racist tropes, stereotypes, and imagery that have consistently been presented by various forms of entertainment, education, and media. Also touched upon are the various lies that have been told about Black people, like how black men are a threat to white women, and how black women are hyper sexualized, not to mention how they are a primitive, lawless, and dangerous people. When compared to the atrocious attacks committed by white Americans, the film becomes a scathing account of systemic injustice.

If anything, he documentary could’ve been much more indicting of where we are as a nation and how we got here. Still, in the best possible way, “Stamped from the Beginning” comes across as essential viewing and it makes the book required reading.


RATING: *** 

Documentary/Historical/Political/Social Commentary
RUNTIME: 94 min.

“Stamped from the Beginning” will be screened on Wednesday, October 18th at 6:00pm (CST) at the Logan Center For the Arts as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Scheduled to Attend: Producer Alisa Payne and author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Details for tickets can be found here. 






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