“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

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James Baldwin & The Devil Finds Work. Image via Wikipedia.

James Baldwin & The Devil Finds Work. Image via Wikipedia.

James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Image via Wikipedia.

David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. Image via Wikipedia.

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use to the British, whose attitude toward him, otherwise, is at best ambivalent. The film takes the view that he was a valiant, maverick, naive and headstrong, brutally broken in battle, and betrayed, less by his country than by his inability to confront — as do his superiors — the hard facts of life, in this case, referring, principally, to the limits and exigencies of power. And it would appear to be true that Lawrence’s concept of power existed almost entirely on a messianic level — indeed, on a level far more complex and painful than that — but it is almost impossible to pursue this speculation within the confines described by the film.

The film presents us with an inadvertent martyr to the cause of spreading civilization: the speeding of the light to those in darkness. One of the hazards of this endeavor is that of finding oneself in the hands of the infidels. This is what happens to Lawrence in the film (and in a far more fascinating and terrible way in his book). In the film, he is captured by the Turks, refuses the lustful attentions of a Turkish Bey, and is raped by the soldiers. The precipitates his subsequent slaughter of the fleeing Turkish Army. This slaughter destroys his soul, and, though the desert has now claimed him forever, he no longer has any role in the desert, and so must go home to England, dead, to die.

The film begins with the death of Lawrence in order to avoid, whether consciously or not, the deepest and most dangerous implications of this story. We are confronted with a fallen hero, and we trace the steps which lead him to his end. But the zeal which drove Lawrence into the desert does not begin at the point at which we meet him in the film, but farther back than that, in that complex of stratifications called England. Of this, Lawrence himself was most tormentedly aware.

The English can be said to exemplify the power of nostalgia to an uncanny degree. Nothing the world holds, from Australia to Africa, to America, India, to China, to Egypt, appears to have made the faintest imprint on the English soul: wherever the English are is — or will resist, out of perversity, or at its peril, becoming — England. (Not, on the other hand, of course, that it can ever truly be England: but it can try.) This is a powerful presumption, but why, then, the ruder recipient cannot but demand, do not the English stay in England? It would appear that this island people need endless corroboration of their worth: and the tragedy of their history has been their compulsion to make the world their mirror, and this to a degree not to be equalled in the history of any other people — and with a success, if that is the word, not to be equalled in the history of any other people. I liked the things beneath me — Lawrence, from Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, is speaking — and took my pleasures and adventures downward. There seemed a certainty in degradation, a final safety. Man could rise to any height, but there was an animal level beneath which he could not fall. It was a satisfaction on which to rest.

The necessity, then, of those “lesser breeds without the law” — those wogs, barbarians, niggers — is this: one must not become more free, nor become more base than they: must not be used as they are used, nor yet use them as their abandonment allows one to use them: therefore, they must be civilized. But, when they are civilized, they may simply “spuriously imitate [the civilizer] back again,” leaving the civilizer with “no satisfaction on which to rest.”

Thus, it may be said that the weary melancholy underlying Lawrence of Arabia stems from the stupefying apprehension that, whereas England may have been doomed to civilize the world, no power under heaven can civilize England. I am using England, at the moment, arbitrarily, simply because England is responsible for Lawrence: but the principle illustrates the dilemma of all the civilizing, or colonizing powers, particularly now, as their power begins to be, at once, more tenuous and more brutal, and their vaunted identities revealed as being dubious indeed. The greater the public power, the greater the private, inadmissible despair; the greater the danger to all human life. The camera remains on Lawrence’s face a long time before he finally cries, No prisoners! and leads his men to massacre the Turks. This pause is meant to recall to us the intolerable mortification he has endured, and to make comprehensible the savagery of this English schoolboy.

Peter O’Toole’s famed cry, as described by James Baldwin:

On The Birth Of A Nation (1915):

D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation. Image via Wikipedia.

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation. Image via Wikipedia.

“For, the most striking thing about the merciless plot on which The Birth Of A Nation depends is that, although the legend of the nigger controls it the way the day may be controlled by threat of rain, there are really no niggers in it. The plot is entirely controlled by the image of the mulatto, and there are two of them, one male and one female. All of the energy of the film is siphoned off into these two dreadful and improbable creatures. It might have made sense — that is, might have made a story — if these tow mulattoes had been related to each other, or to the renegade politician, whose wards they are: but, no, he seems to have dreamed them up (they are like creatures in a nightmare someone is having) and they are related to each other only by their envy of white people…..

The idea of producing a child, on condition, and under the guarantee, that the child cannot reproduce must, after all, be relatively rare: no matter how dim a view one may take of the human race. It argues an extraordinarily spiritual condition, or an unspeakable spiritual poverty: to produce a child with the intention of using it to gain a lease on limbo, or, failing that, on purgatory: to produce a child with the extinction of the child as one’s hope of heaven. Mulatto: for that outpost of Christianity, that segment of the race which called itself white, which found itself stranded among the heathen on the North American continent, under the necessity of destroying all evidence of sin, including, if need be, those children who were proof of abandonment to savage, heathen passion, and under the absolute necessity of preserving its idea of itself by any means necessary, the use of the word, mulatto, was by no means inadvertent. It is one of the keys to American history, present, and past. Americans are still destroying their own children: and, infanticide being but a step away from genocide, not only theirs. If we do not know where the mulatto came from, we certainly know where a multitude went, dispatched by their own fathers, and we know where multitudes are, until today, plotting death, plotting life, groaning in the chains in which their fathers have bound them.”

On In The Heat Of The Night (1967):

Norman Jewison's In The Heat Of The Night. Image via Wikipedia.

Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night. Image via Wikipedia.

“There remains the obligatory, fade-out kiss. I am aware that men do not kiss each other in American films, nor, for the most part, in America, nor do the black detective and the white Sheriff kiss here. But the obligatory, fade-out kiss, in the classic American film, did not really speak of love, and, still less, of sex: it spoke of reconciliation, of all things now becoming possible. it was a device desperately needed among a people for whom so much had to be made possible. And, no matter how inept one must judge the film to be, in spite of its absolutely appalling distance from reality, in spite of my own helplessly sardonic tone when discussing it, and even in spite of the fact that the effect of such a film is to increase and not lessen white confusion and complacency, and black rage and despair, I still do not wish to be guilty of the gratuitous injustice of seeming to impute base motives to the people responsible for its existence. Our situation would be far more coherent if it were possible to categorize, or dismiss, In The Heat Of The Night so painlessly. No: the film helplessly conveys — without confronting — the anguish of people trapped in a legend. They cannot live within this legend; neither can they step out of it. The film gave me the impression, according to my notes the day I saw it, of “something strangling, alive, struggling to get out.” And I certainly felt this during the final scene, when the white Sheriff takes the black detective’s bag as they walk to the train. It is not that the creators of the film were inspired by base motives, but that they could not understand their motives, nor be responsible for the effect of their exceedingly complex motives, in action. (All motives are complex, and it is just as well to remember this: including, or perhaps especially, one’s own.) The history which produces such a film cannot, after all, be swiftly understood, nor can the effects of this history be easily resolved. Nor can this history be blamed on any single individual: but, at the same time, no one can be let off the hook. It is a terrible thing, simply, to be trapped in one’s history, and attempt, in the same motion (and in this, our life!) to accept, deny, reject, and redeem it — and, also, on whatever level, to profit from it. And: with one’s head in the fetid jaws of this lion’s mouth, attempt to love and be loved, and raise one’s children, and pay the rent, and wrestle with one’s mortality. In the final scene at the station, there is something choked and moving, something sensed through a thick glass, dimly, in the Sheriff’s sweet, boyish, Southern injunction, to Virgil: “take care, you hear?” and something equally choked and rigid in the black detective’s reaction. It reminded me of nothing so much as William Blake’s Little Black Boy — that remote, that romantic, and that hopeless. Virgil Tibbs goes to where they call him Mister, far away, presumably, from South Street, and the Sheriff has gone back to the niggers, who are really his only assignment. And nothing, alas, has been made possible by this obligatory, fade-out kiss, this preposterous adventure: except that white Americans have been encouraged to continue dreaming, and black Americans have been alerted to the necessity of waking up. People who cannot escape thinking of themselves as white are poorly equipped, if equipped at all, to consider the meaning of black: people who know so little about themselves can face very little in another: and one dare hope for nothing from friends like these.”

On The Autobiography Of Malcolm X (1968 screenplay, unfinished):

Malcolm X. Image via Wikipedia.

Malcolm X. Image via Wikipedia.

“Since both the film for which I had been hired [as the screenplay writer], and Che! were controversial, courageous, revolutionary films, being packaged for the consumer society, it was hoped that our film would beat Che! to the box office. This was not among my concerns. I had a fairly accurate idea of what Hollywood was about to do with Che!…I had no intention of betraying Malcolm, or his natives. Yet, my producer had been advised, in an inter-office memo which I, quite unscrupulously, intercepted, that the writer (me) should be advised that the tragedy of Malcolm’s life was that he had been mistreated, early, by some whites, and betrayed (later) by many blacks: emphasis in the original. The writer was also to avoid suggesting that Malcolm’s trip to Mecca could have had any political implications, or repercussions.

Well. I had never before seen this machinery at such close quarters, and I confess that I was both fascinated and challenged. Near the end of my Hollywood sentence, the studio assigned me a ‘technical’ expert, who was, in fact, to act as my collaborator. This fact was more or less disguised at first, but I was aware of it, and far from enthusiastic: still, by the time the studio and I had arrived at this impasse, there was no ground on which I could ‘reasonably’ refuse. I liked the man well enough — I had no grounds, certainly, no which to dislike him. I didn’t contest his ‘track record’ as a screenwriter, and I reassured myself that he might be helpful; he was signed, anyway, and went to work.

Each week, I would deliver two or three scenes, which he would take home, breaking them — translating them — into cinematic language, shot by shot, camera angle by camera angle. This seemed to me a somewhat strangling way to make a film. My sense of the matter was that the screenwriter delivered as clear a blueprint as possible, which then became the point of departure for all the other elements involved in the making of a film. For example, surely it was the director’s province to decide where to place the camera; and he would be guided in his decision by the dynamic of the scene. However, as the weeks wore on, and my scenes were returned to me ‘translated,’ it began to be despairingly clear (to me) that all meaning was being siphoned out of them…..

For example: there is a very short scene in my screenplay in which the central character, a young boy from the country, walks into a very quiet, very special Harlem bar, in the late afternoon. The scene is important because the ‘country’ boy is Malcolm X, the bar is Small’s Paradise, and the purpose of the scene is to dramatize Malcolm’s first meeting with West Indian Archie — the numbers man who introduced Malcolm to the rackets. The interior evidence of Malcolm’s book very strongly suggests a kind of father-son relationship between Archie and Malcolm: my problem was how to suggest this as briefly and effectively as possible.

So, in my scene, as written, Malcolm walks into the bar, dressed in the zoot-suit of the times, and orders a drink. He does not know how outrageously young and vulnerable he looks. Archie is sitting at a table with his friends, and they watch Malcolm, making jokes about him between themselves. But their jokes contain an oblique confession: they see themselves in Malcolm. They have all been Malcolm once. He does not know what is about to happen to him, but they do, because it has already happened to them. They have been seeing it happen to others, and enduring what has happened to them, for nearly as long as Malcolm has been on earth. Archie, particularly, is struck by something he sees in the boy. So, when Malcolm, stumbling back from the jukebox, stumbles over Archie’s shoes, Archie uses this as a pretext to invite the boy over to the table. And that is all there is to the scene.

My collaborator brought it back to me, translated. It was really the same scene, he explained, but he had added a little action — thus, when Malcolm stumbles over Archie’s shoes, Archie becomes furious. Malcolm, in turn, becomes furious, and the scene turns into a shoot-out from High Noon, with everybody in the bar taking bets as to who will draw first. In this way, said my collaborator (with which judgment the studio, of course, agreed) everyone in the audience could see what Archie saw in Malcolm: he admired the ‘country boy’s’ guts…..

The rewritten scene was much longer than the original scene, and, though it occurs quite early in the script, detailed the script completely. With all of my scenes being ‘translated’ in this way, the script would grow bulkier than War and Peace, and the script, therefore, would have to be cut. And I saw how that would work. Having fallen into the trap of accepting ‘technical’ assistance, I would not, at the cutting point, be able to reject it; and the script would then be cut according to the ‘action’ line, and in the interest of ‘entertainment’ values. How I got myself out of this fix doesn’t concern us here — I simply walked out, taking my original script with me — but the adventure remained very painfully in my mind, and, indeed, was to shed a certain light for me on the adventure occurring through the American looking-glass.”

James Baldwin debates Malcolm X, arguing from (and for) a far more universal set of points:

On Lady Sings The Blues (1972):

Lady Sings The Blues, or Diana Ross's take on Billie Holiday. Image via Wikipedia.

Lady Sings The Blues, or: Diana Ross’s take on Billie Holiday. Image via Wikipedia.

“The film cannot accept — because it cannot use — this simplicity. That victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he, or she, has become a threat.

The victim’s testimony must, therefore, be altered. But, since no one outside the victim’s situation dares imagine the victim’s situation, this testimony can be altered only after it has been delivered; and after it has become the object of some study. The purpose of this scrutiny is to emphasize certain striking details which can then be used to quite another purpose than the victim had in mind. Given the complexity of the human being, and the complexities of society, this is not difficult. (Or, it does not appear to be difficult: the endless revisions made in the victim’s testimony suggest that the endeavor may be impossible. Wounded Knee comes to mind, along with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and we have yet to hear form My Lai.) Thus, for example, ghetto citizens have been heard to complain, very loudly, of the damage done to their homes during any ghetto uprising, and a grateful Republic fastens on this as a benevolent way of discouraging future uprisings. But the truth is, every ghetto citizen knows this, that no one trapped in the ghetto owns anything, since they certainly do not own the land. Anyone who doubts this has only to spend tomorrow walking through the ghetto nearest to his.

Once the victim’s testimony is delivered, however, there is, thereafter, forever, a witness somewhere: which is an irreducible inconvenience for the makers and shakers and accomplices of this world. These run together, in packs, and corroborate each other. They cannot bear the judgment in the eyes of the people whom they intent to hold in bondage forever, and who know more about them than their lovers. This remote, public, and, as it were, principled, bondage is the indispensable justification of their own: when the prisoner is free, the jailer faces the void of himself.”

On The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist, via the original poster. Guardian.

The Exorcist, via the original poster. Guardian.

“The word ‘belief’ has nearly no meaning anymore, in the recognized languages, and ineptly approaches the reality to which I am referring: for there can be no doubt that it is a reality. The blacks had first been claimed by the Christian church, and then excluded from the company of white Christians — from the fellowship of Christians: which taught us all that we needed to know about white Christians. The blacks did not so much use Christian symbols as recognize them — recognize them for what they were before the Christians came along — and, thus, reinvested these symbols with their original energy. The proof of this, simply, is the continued existence and authority of the blacks: it is through the creation of the black church that an unwritten, dispersed, and violated inheritance has been handed down…To live in connection with a life beyond this life means, in effect — in truth — that frightened as one may be, and no matter how limited, or how lonely, and no matter how the deal, at last, goes down, no man can ever frighten you. This is why blacks can be heard to say, I ain’t got to do nothing but stay black, and die!: which, is, after all, a far more affirmative apprehension than I’m free, white, and twenty-one. The first proposition is changeless, whereas the second is at the mercy of time, weather, the dictionary, geography, fashion. The custodian of an inheritance, which is what blacks have had to be, in Western culture, must hand the inheritance down the line. so, you, the custodian, recognize, finally, that your life does not belong to you. This will not sound like freedom to Western ears, since the Western world pivots on the infantile, and, in action, criminal delusions of possession, and of property. But, just as love is the only money, as the song puts it, so this might responsibility is the only freedom…..

To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not endlessly compelled to repeat it, and, further, believe it, and act on that belief. My friend was quite right when he said, So, we must be careful — lest we lose our faith — and become possessed.

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the yes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. This devil has no need of any dogma — though he can use them all — nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.

The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks — many, many others, including white children — can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet. At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing: she is departing with her mother, who will, presumably, soon make another film. The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton fields and migrant shacks and ghettos of this nation, and in the schools and prisons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.”

3 Comments “The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

  1. Thomas Evans

    Thanks for sharing this. I thought Baldwin absolutely decimated Malcolm X in that video.

    Is there anything of Baldwin’s you would specifically recommend for a layperson? From looking at his Wiki page it seems he was pretty prolific in many genres, I wouldn’t know where to start.

    Thanks,
    Thomas.

    Reply
  2. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

    Hey Thomas,

    If you’re looking for just one essay to feel James Baldwin out, I’d recommend “Down At The Cross/The Fire Next Time” (they should come together), which is about race and religion. He was a preacher as a kid, then came to reject Christianity.

    If you think he decimates Malcolm X there, you should see what he does to Elijah Muhammad in that book, yet in a way that’s hilarious and pointed and applies to so many people beyond EM.

    Reply
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