May 29, 2024

Roger Ross Williams is having quite the year. So far, the Oscar-winning director has released his first fiction film, Amazon Studios’ “Cassandro”; the HBO documentary “Love to Love You, Donna Summer”; AppleTV+ docuseries “The Super Models”; and Hulu miniseries “The 1619 Project.”

Joining Williams’ impressive output this year is Netflix’s “Stamped From the Beginning,” an adaptation of the eponymous bestselling book by Ibram X. Kendi about the history of racism and anti-Blackness in the U.S. The film has its European premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam on Tuesday.

To have “Stamped From the Beginning” play at the festival is special to the American director, who now lives in the Dutch capital. “Amsterdam is my home, I love the city so much. IDFA is such an important festival for the Dutch community but it’s also an important festival for me, personally, being a Dutch resident married to a Dutch person,” he tells Variety in Amsterdam.

“IDFA is truly an international festival and spotlights international documentaries you never see get released elsewhere,” he continues. “For eight years, I was the governor of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and my goal was to bring in as many international members to diversify the Academy.”

Williams’ time at the Academy is the subject of great pride to the director, who emphasizes that by the end of his term the documentary branch was “the most diverse branch” in the Academy. “One-third of the members were international and I was obsessed with gender parity. How could we not have gender parity when women are the engine of everything, especially in documentary? We were the first branch in the Academy to reach gender parity and the most diverse.”

His experience at the Academy grants Williams much wisdom when navigating the awards circuit himself, particularly in a year where he has helmed so many projects in both TV and film. “Because I got to be in the middle of all these awards campaigns, I saw what worked and what didn’t about the system. I make films because I am passionate about the subject and am trying to answer questions. With ‘Stamped From the Beginning,’ Black Americans were asking ourselves: What is going on in this country? I wanted to understand that.”

“Stamped From the Beginning”

He underscores the fact that award campaigns are about connecting his projects with people, and having conversations about subjects he is passionate about. Nevertheless, Williams recognizes the importance of awards like the Oscars and having his films available on popular streaming services.

“There is no denying the Oscars help amplify your message because you have more eyes on [your film]. This is why I went to Netflix [with ‘Stamped From the Beginning’],” he says. “You can ban a book, but you can’t ban Netflix. It’s the biggest platform in the world, so I was like: If I am going to take this on, I’m going to do it in the biggest way possible.”

When Williams first read Kendi’s book, he was “completely blown away by it, and how I, a Black American, digested and believed these racist ideas against myself,” he says. “It was so interesting to me how these anti-Black ideas were embedded in popular culture, in our movies, television shows, books and newspapers.”

Pop culture’s potential to amplify ideas inspired Williams to create a film that taps into the cultural consciousness, mixing animation, archival footage and testimonials from all-female experts (with the exception of Kendi himself) to weave a thesis on American racism. “David Teague, my longtime collaborator, and I just started having critical conversations and I said we should tell the story through the pop culture devices that disseminate racist ideas. At the time we read about how ‘The Mandalorian’ was shot in an innovative way on a green screen stage and we thought, ‘Let’s shoot it like that!’”

When asked about how he safeguards himself emotionally when approaching such difficult, personal subjects, Williams is categoric in saying that film is his “therapy,” adding: “As a Black American, I am always under threat of death. Black people suffer an incredible amount of micro-aggressions every day and live under fear in America, so the film is a form of therapy to understand that, how to resist that and to be inspired by the resistance movements of the past and know that there is still hope.”

As for what he has learned from making “Stamped From the Beginning,” Williams says the film has helped him learn to “trust and believe in my own instincts and creative voice.”

“For so long I didn’t have any support or belief in me, and then I learned to trust my own voice and stick to my guns,” he says. A prime example of that is how the film’s story is told.

“I wanted all Black women to tell this story even though people were saying it would make it less appealing to the masses,” Williams says. “But it is a powerful thing and I am the director. This is my decision. This film is a testament. I learned to trust my voice.”

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