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“The History of Racist Ideas”: Roger Ross Williams on Stamped From the Beginning

A woodcut shows two Black slaves working in a field.Stamped from the Beginning

Though I’ve not read Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s New York Times bestseller Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, I’m guessing the National Book Award-winner might not be the most obvious material for the big screen. Which is why I was a bit surprised when I finally watched the TIFF-debuting Netflix doc Stamped From the Beginning, Roger Ross Williams’ cinematic and often playful take on the professor-author’s quite heavy subject matter. Indeed, any film that opens with its (Black) director ambushing his (Black) talking heads with the query/salvo, “What is wrong with Black people?” is announcing a rather anti-staid-academic vibe.

To learn all about weaving archival footage with intellectual interviews (mostly with Black, female Ph.D. heavyweights, including Imani Perry and Angela Davis), and reenactments with evocative animation—all set to a lively hip-hop score, Filmmaker caught up with the unbelievably busy, Oscar-winning director-producer-writer (whose Cassandro and Love to Love You, Donna Summer—not to mention The 1619 Project television series—also released this past year). Stamped From the Beginning hits theaters on November 10th with a Netflix global release to follow on November 20th.

Filmmaker: How exactly did the doc originate? What made you think this particular book material could be made into a cinematic film?

Williams: When [the murder of] George Floyd happened in America and there was a racial reckoning, the number one book on the New York Times bestseller list was [Kendi’s] How to Be an Antiracist. I was personally blown away by the protests all across America and in every small community. Even in the small, upstate New York, all-white farming town where I live, they were protesting, holding Black Lives Matter signs. I was moved to tears and knew I had to explore that.

Further down on the NYT bestseller list was Stamped From the Beginning. That book broke down the history of racist ideas in a way I have never seen or experienced before—even internalized racism that I had against Black people myself as a Black American.

I didn’t have the resources to option the book myself, so I called my good friends at Netflix and said, “Let’s do this together.” I wanted to do it as a tight, 90-minute film, because I wanted people to go into the theater, or sit down and watch it at home, and be transformed. I wanted it to be accessible, to show how it relates to our lives today. And I wanted it to feel pop cultural, because pop culture is how America disseminates racist ideas. Racism is embedded in our psyche. It destroys our culture and hurts everyone. I wanted to use every tool in my toolkit to tell a really powerful story.

Filmmaker: Between the interviews, archival footage, animation and actors—not to mention the jam-packed soundtrack—this film feels like a daunting production, with so many moving parts. How did you develop and combine all these components? Simultaneously? One element at a time?

Williams: The first thing I said to myself was, “This can’t look or feel like any other historical documentary we’ve ever seen. It has to feel completely fresh, completely new.” So, all those tools—VFX, animation, needle drop of popular music, playing with time—are great tools for documentarians, and a way that people can relate to the material and understand it in today’s language.

It became about connecting the past to the present, where we let go of this strict academic approach to the material and just have fun. That’s where the VFX, the animation, all of that comes into play. And then I came up with this concept of “9 Lies About Black People.” The “9 Lies” really helped structure everything and became the framework for the film.

Filmmaker: I was quite excited to learn that you worked with AWESOME + modest (whose animation I’m familiar with through Zackary Drucker’s films) as well as Black Women Animate on this project. What was the process of collaborating with these artists like?

Williams: The script by [writer-producer] David Teague had VFX scenes outlined, so there was a blueprint. We knew which scenes we wanted to do early on, and we also had the thought that we wanted to do those scenes shot with actors on a green screen and rotoscoped in the art style of the time. I’d seen AWESOME + modest’s work via The Stroll and thought they’d be great for this film as well.

We’d also heard about the incredible work of Black Women Animate and wanted to work with them, even more so after we thought of the nine chapter headings as the framework of the film. They’d submitted a wonderful proposal for fonts and chapter headings using archival and animations. Once we saw those, it was a no-brainer. It was really important to us, overall, to tap into cutting edge Black talent to tell this very important story that affects every Black American.

Filmmaker: I was a bit startled to see an intimacy coordinator listed in the credits. What led you to hire one? Was this solely for specific scenes?

Williams: Well, this work includes very sensitive matter. We created a scene with a male actor who was evoking an enslaver being predatory towards the enslaved. It was really important to myself and my incredible producer, Alisa Payne, to have an intimacy coordinator on set for both actors in that scene—to make sure they felt comfortable with the grabbing, what they were saying to each other and putting them in that type of position.

Filmmaker: Ultimately, how was this process of bringing book to screen different from your prior projects?

Williams: When I read Stamped from the Beginning I was transformed. I saw myself differently and was further awakened to the way racist ideas embed themselves in American policy and pop culture. I had to make this movie. So, I went to Netflix, who optioned the book along with me and helped me achieve that goal.

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