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For James Baldwin, leaving the United States was a matter of survival. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York,” the writer said in a 1984 Paris Review interview. Despair pervaded the streets of Harlem, where the towering literary figure was born and raised. It appeared in the struggle to make a living, to secure housing and to dodge the hawkish gaze and brute force of police officers. In 1946, two years before Baldwin made his way to Paris with 40 dollars in his pocket, his best friend killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Moving out of the city — out of a country that insisted he was nothing — was his only chance at a life.
It wasn’t easy to build those lives in France, Switzerland and Turkey, but Baldwin slipped into the role of the itinerant writer and occupied it for nearly 40 years. He stayed with friends, borrowed money and won a few grants, which allowed him to write furiously and with a sense of clarity. During those decades, Baldwin wrote many of his anthologized essays and finished his debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.
He also came to understand himself and his relationship to America differently. James Baldwin Abroad, a three-film program showing at Film Forum from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, gives us an opportunity to examine this critical period in Baldwin’s adult life — to see how distance from his home country changed how the writer saw himself in relation to the world and helped him diagnose the unrelenting drama of American racism.
LOVIA GYARKYE: Sequence played a critical role in how I understood Baldwin through these films. I don’t know in which order Film Forum will play them, but I started with Horace Ové’s Baldwin’s N***er, which was filmed in 1968. It’s the earliest film in the program — which also includes Terence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971) and Sedat Pakay’s James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973) — and it captures Baldwin at his most energetic.
Ové’s film observes Baldwin and Dick Gregory in conversation at the West Indian Student Centre, a cultural hub and social organization for Caribbean students living and studying in London. The conversation is jovial and easy despite the moments of slight tension, which come from students pushing Baldwin to elaborate on his Pan-African views. It’s funny that Baldwin, who grew up behind the pulpit and whose rhetorical style pulsates with the oratorial prowess of a preacher, said he never felt comfortable as a speaker. Here, his command of the room is palpable. His rapid, demonstrative hand gestures, his wandering eye contact and the jokes he sneaks into his speech keep the crowd attentive. There’s a vigor and excitement — which wanes in his later years — to his communication style, a sense that his mind can scarcely keep up with his ideas.
SHERI LINDEN: I watched the films not in chronological order but from the briefest (Pakay’s 12-minute short) to the longest, so I experienced Ové’s 46-minute documentary last. This turned out to be a progression from most intimate and inward to the most outwardly focused and overtly political. When we first see him in James Baldwin: From Another Place, he’s getting out of bed, alone in a spartan room; in Baldwin’s N***er, he’s in suit and tie and at a microphone. The energy you describe in his give-and-take with the crowd is charged with unpredictability. There’s a volatility to his commentary in the other two films too, but literary matters — how to be an artist, a writer, an expat — are as pressing as the weight of history, the murderous realities of racism, and the optimistic impetus toward revolution. He’s looking at his own trajectory as well as that of the world of nations. And they’re inseparable. As you say, leaving his home country was crucial to survival; he calls it “a matter of life or death.” But though he may have been fleeing a certain danger, he wasn’t escaping engagement with the United States and its problems — quite the contrary.
Baldwin and his piercing intellect feel especially urgent now, when the yammering of a rotating cast of cable pundits masquerades as meaningful discourse and anyone who questions liberal orthodoxy, as Baldwin does so bracingly, is marginalized. He notes how “very proud of calling itself a democracy” the U.S. is. Such platitudinous rhetoric persists, of course, deadening the conversation instead of keeping it alive. I would have welcomed his take, half a century later, on the way the word “democracy” has been brandished lately.
GYARKYE: I love what you said about the intimacy, and before I address that I want to speak to your point about the timing. Baldwin’s stature in history brings me joy and stresses me out. The ease with which he’s cited makes me wary of whether we, as a reading, listening and thinking audience, are actually receiving the message. It’s too easy to dull the critiques of intellectual giants and turn them into pat, motivational remarks.
This series leaves little room for that, which is perfect for this era of rhetorical avoidance and intentional obtuseness, especially in politics. The films show how hard Baldwin worked to express his ideas about American racism, imperialism and the roles white and Black people play in revolutionary movements. Do you remember that moment in Ové’s film, when an audience member asks Baldwin what role white liberals can play in the movement for liberation? He says that as a Black man he is compelled to question everything, whereas white liberals are in the exact opposition position. They are “unwilling as well as unable to examine the forces which have brought him to where he is, which have created him in fact,” he explains. “That innocence can be, in crucial moments, a very grave danger.” I love that, in response to a part of the question that references white British people’s discomfort with their exclusion from the movement, he adds: “I don’t think it serves any purpose to get one’s feelings hurt,” because that’s a lesson that can be hard to internalize. The work required to create a fairer world doesn’t really begin and end with one’s feelings.
I thought about that when I observed Dixon’s reactions to Baldwin in Meeting the Man. The relationship between director and subject is tense, terse and frustrating. Dixon bristles at Baldwin’s attitude and I think at one point characterizes his behavior as “hostile,” a curious choice of words for a white director to use for his Black subject. Throughout the film, Baldwin is trying to get Dixon to see and acknowledge his own preconceived notions of Baldwin, to understand that he is not merely “an exotic survivor” whose experiences can be narrativized for a white audience seeking comfort instead of honesty. Baldwin is a witness, not a compass.
It’s initially hard for Dixon to hear Baldwin because he’s nursing hurt feelings about his filmmaking strategy being disrupted. Once the director is able to move through those feelings — to express his frustration and admit that he just wants Baldwin to give him the answers — he and Baldwin can work toward a more truthful project. The film becomes more intimate, then, too, as Baldwin lets Dixon observe some real vulnerable moments, including one scene where he tells a group of Black students: “I know that I love you. […] And I suppose I never thought that I would live to hear you say that you love me.” A beautiful and heartbreaking sentiment, if you ask me.
LINDEN: Yes! The emotion of that moment, though contained and quickly tempered by a bit of levity, has an extraordinary intensity as it plays across Baldwin’s face and, for an infinitesimal instant, quivers in his voice. I was eager to hear your take on Dixon’s film. It’s the only one of these three restored works that I’d seen before, and its impact was even stronger on second (and third) viewings. It captures a profound clash of purposes between the filmmaker and Baldwin, one in which Dixon doesn’t come off well, to put it mildly. The extent to which he does or doesn’t understand why his subject has become “less cooperative” is a defining aspect of the film. “We had a system, we had a scheme,” the director complains when Baldwin upends his vision for the documentary — he’s not interested in doing a writerly travelogue about Paris when, in ways both literal and symbolic, the world is on fire. (Some of the American students who appear in the film reportedly were dodging the Vietnam draft.)
The way Dixon exposes his own inability to comprehend Baldwin’s experience and worldview can be interpreted as disingenuous or earnest. But either way, I’m grateful he made this film, because even if he wasn’t prepared to address the politics of race, and however excruciating some of his directorial ego-tripping may be, he’s not ultimately opposed to Baldwin. And the heated moments between them are shaped by the vitality and eloquence of Baldwin’s response.
You make an important point about the risk of complex thinkers being reduced to fashionable emblems. People might find ways to invoke Baldwin’s name as an insta-badge of knowingness, but it’s their loss if they don’t also encounter the discernment and fury and brilliance of his work, and the indefatigable grace and nuance that these films reveal. Much of what Baldwin says in them has stayed with me, one haunting comment in particular, in Ové’s documentation of that London meeting: “The most subtle effect of oppression is what it does to your mind, what it does to the way you think about yourself.” He’s a social critic talking about the oppression of Black people — specifically, Black Americans — and, like any serious novelist, he’s illuminating the human condition.
GYARKYE: Part of Baldwin’s ability to articulate those conditions so well came, I think, from how deeply he considered his place in the world. Take the scene in Pakay’s short where Baldwin talks about his romantic life. I can’t tell if he’s addressing the question head-on, since we don’t hear the director ask it, but his response tells us a lot about his approach to living. “I had to deal with my life as though I had no father, I had no mother, as though I had arrived with no antecedents so to speak and had to make it up as I went along,” he says. Baldwin had an alienating childhood, and I think navigating his life as one would a blank page translated to constant self-interrogation about the worthiness of certain experiences, whether or not they were for him. That’s a frightening and destabilizing exercise, but it can also clarify your sense of self and sharpen your intuition. In Baldwin’s case, I think it made him more adamant about using his work to tell the truth and positioning himself as a witness.
LINDEN: A few years ago, Raoul Peck’s gripping doc I Am Not Your Negro picked up the pieces of an unfinished work by the writer, but here we have Baldwin himself, interacting with friends, acquaintances and, in one electrifying case, a hapless director. In the Istanbul-set short, Baldwin ventures into the town square and at first people jostle him and bump into him as if he’s invisible. But soon he’s commanding attention, center stage, strutting and beaming. He’s uprooted, the stranger, and yet where he belongs.
GYARKYE: I couldn’t agree more. If these films have taught me anything, it’s that for Baldwin, leaving the United States was both an act of survival and an opportunity to really know himself.
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