This Week: James Baldwin
This week, we didn’t do a Donald Trump show, mostly. Our president does make an appearance here and there, of course. Listen to these voices. They are simply great — Teju Cole, Raoul Peck , Cornel West and Ed Pavlic. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Mary McGrath: The fun of producing this show was discovering the world of James Baldwin. It’s a vast place that encompasses words, images, history, and centrally, we discovered — music. We began with Raoul Pecks’ Oscar-nominated film, I Am Not Your Negro, which led us to other films and TV appearances and a special one on radio with Studs Terkel on WFMT. We started with The Fire Next Time and then we read Baldwin’s novels and essays. Ed Pavlic introduced us to the music Baldwin was listening to and that was a world unto itself: Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, and Ray Charles.
If you want to dive into Baldwin world with us, you can start by checking out the reading list on our show page, which include Baldwin’s Art of Fiction interview in the Paris Review; Hilton Als’s classic 1998 New Yorker essay on Baldwin, “The Enemy Within”; Nathaniel Rich’s NYRB piece on “James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation” and many more.
While you read, you can also listen to the this playlist of “Jimmy’s songs’ — which collects many of the tunes at the heart of Pavlic’s book, “Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners”
You can also check out some of Baldwin’s most heroic debate moments, including his infamous showdown with William F. Buckley:
Finally, you should definitely watch Zach’s video of our interview with Dr. Cornel West below, which we were lucky enough to be able to film at the Harvard Divinity School. We’re really proud of this one (and this show in general), so please do share it around!
I binged-watched hours of Baldwin films this week, partly so I could find and collect b-roll footage for the video above, but I also found myself strangely compelled to just keep watching Baldwin, even after the work was done. As OS producer Frank Horton joked, Baldwin could easily pass the Roger Ailes test: even if you watch him without sound, you can’t keep you eyes off him any time he’s on screen.
Baldwin’s natural on-screen presence makes him, in some ways, a perfect documentary subject, but that presents a certain challenge: what can you possibly add as a filmmaker?
Raoul Peck mostly manages to solve this problem by taking an admirably minimalist approach and allowing Baldwin’s words to speak on their own without adding talking-head interpretation. I also felt at times, though, that his attempts to bring Baldwin into the present-tense — to splice in images of Ferguson, Trump, Obama — tried too hard to make him contemporary.
I watched a few of the other Baldwin documentaries that preceded Peck’s film, to see how they tackled this problem.
The Price of the Ticket was my first real introduction to Baldwin’s work. I caught a screening of that 1989 Albert Maysles PBS documentary two years ago. Seeing that film in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the uprisings in Ferguson, it wasn’t hard to understand Baldwin’s relevance to the present moment. Raoul Peck’s film, nominated for an Oscar (fingers crossed), I Am Not Your Negro, presents Baldwin as a sort of disembodied, omnipresent voice, speaking across generations, but the 1989 one is marked primarily by Baldwin’s absence, both physical and spiritual. The tone of the film is set by the opening sequence at Baldwin’s funeral, where we hear two very different memories of Baldwin: One is a fiery speech from the pulpit from Amiri Baraka — who, like Cornel West, praises Baldwin for his anti-corporate, revolutionary individualism . The other comes from Maya Angelou; shedding a single tear, she remembers him primarily for his openness and willingness to be a brother to others. It’s these two, raw contrasting moments of eulogy that really stick with you, and make you realize that what these people loved in Baldwin just can’t be summoned back.
The 1982 film I Heard It Through the Grapevine might be my favorite of all the Baldwin documentaries, though it’s also the messiest.
Grapevine follows Baldwin through a rather bleak tour of black communities in the 80s, nearly two decades after he first toured these states during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. Baldwin appears not just physically aged but also spiritually depleted. His movements are less frenetic and lively. His polished, staccato speech has slowed into a low and lilting rasp. His wide eyes now seem to droop and drift away from the camera.
There’s good reason for his weariness: he’s still reeling from the deaths of Malcolm X, MLK, and Medgar Evers. Baldwin says in his opening statement for the film: “here is another roll-call of unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on the Freedom Road.’’
You think, at first, that he’s describing the others he met in his travels, but you can also feel that he’s partly describing himself — his own crushed state, his own sense of being, in some deep sense, unknown and invisible, even in front of the camera. It’s a fascinating reversal of the typical Baldwin rhetoric, which tends to talk explicitly about the self while implicitly talking about a broader, more universal group. This is Baldwin at his most pessimistic, “to be a hope, not to have hope,” as Cornel says.
From Another Place is a 1973 short film documenting Baldwin’s time outside the U.S.. Here, the Turkish filmmaker Sedat Pakay catches up with Baldwin at his apartment in Istanbul. In the opening scene, he appears nearly naked, narrating a response to his American critics: “I suppose that many people do blame you for being out of the states as often as I am…” Physically exposed and speaking a quasi-confessional tone, he sets you up to expect a more personal narrative.
Yet in a typical Baldwin move, he swiftly and subtly shifts the subject away from himself and to broader topic of American domination: “Someone who is outside of the states realizes it’s impossible to get out. American power follows one everywhere.”
It’s a beautiful, little illustration of one Baldwin’s favorite rhetorical tricks, which as Teju Cole highlights in his New Yorker essay on Baldwin, he developed in New York but perfected abroad :
In her brilliant “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts writes, “In almost every essay James Baldwin wrote about Harlem, there is a moment when he commits a literary sleight-of-hand so particular that, if he’d been an athlete, sportscasters would have codified the maneuver and named it ‘the Jimmy.’ I think of it in cinematic terms, because its effect reminds me of a technique wherein camera operators pan out by starting with a tight shot and then zoom out to a wide view while the lens remains focused on a point in the distance.” This move, this sudden widening of focus, is present even in his essays that are not about Harlem.
Each of these films highlights a different side of Baldwin: the raw, combative enemy of innocence; the battle-scarred, skeptic survivor; the exiled artist reconstructing himself in the hope of, one day, reconstructing his country.
Each also gives a finely developed sense of Baldwin’s life and relationship to particular time and place, as well as particular people. While Baldwin himself often seems to strive to speak in ever expanding, universalist terms, the best portrayals of him in film, I think, are the ones which manage to root him down.
Christ Lydon writes in a lather late last night: Just Go! We Can Talk About It Later!
3:30 today, Sunday afternoon, at Tremont Temple, next to the Parker House on Tremont Street downtown in Boston. The Mystic Chorale is singing Gospel Music under Donnell Patterson’s direction. I heard them last night, and saw stars. One couldn’t not feel abounding grace in our country and culture, even now. The night had more energy than a Trump rally, with nothing but good people, in a famous Boston venue that worked for Frederick Douglass (1860), William Lloyd Garrison (on the Emancipation signing, 1862) and Charles Dickens (reading from “A Christmas Carol” in 1867).
You’ll hear two hundred-plus singers on stage, with a whole lot of affirmative action for people as pale as me. Ethnics of all shapes and sizes, seekers and finders, people we grew up with and knew as if in another life: the guy in the hardware store, the bank teller, your sixth-grade teacher, people who’ve located their expressive selves and learned how to rejoice together. Not a church choir, but singing sanctified music and loving it. “ ‘Praise the Lord’ doesn’t get rid of your issues,” Donnell Patterson noted at one point, “but you feel better anyway.” Despite everything you read and hear and know, there are a lot of productive, connected strivers out there in America, and a lot of them are singing together.
We’re looking into the Russia/Trump story and wondering who has cooked up Cold War II and why. We’ll be talking with Keith Gessen and others. This is a terrific piece on Putin Keith wrote in the Guardian this week. And Chris sends along this long piece from the LRB.
Speaking of conspiracies, filmmaker Errol Morris deconstructs the most famous 26 seconds in film history.
Mary, Zach, Chris,