“Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back,” is the first line from The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin’s 1976 book-length essay about the home that racism made for itself in the America film industry and in the minds of its viewers.
Cover image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_Finds_Work
It’s also the first image from the first movie Baldwin remembers seeing, Dance, Fools, Dance. And even though he recalls being entranced by the swirl of images on the screen and the captivating presence of Crawford, he also remembers being aware that beneath her glamorous veneer, Crawford was still “a white lady” – someone he knew even at the age of seven that he could not trust.
Image of Joan Crawford from http://lts.brandeis.edu/research/archives-speccoll/exhibits/crawford/CrawfordHome.html
From that realization he segues to a memory of being sent to a store and encountering “a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford.”
She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and the others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
Redemption for him was to be found in the real, in reality, not in the escapism that movies were supposed to offer. Though he did absorb a considerable number of lessons from the movies; only, he adapted what he came across to meet his own needs.
Moving forward in the essay, Baldwin amusingly glosses a Tom Mix serial and a hammy, racist Last of the Mohicans, only to come face to face with his next movie star icon – Bette Davis in the forgettable 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
Rather than dissecting the film, Baldwin instead begins by talking about “a young white schoolteacher, a beautiful woman, very important to me,” Orilla “Bill” Miller. Miller was a member of the WPA Theater Project, and she recognized in Baldwin a precocious and unusual talent. She took him under her wing and introduced him to a wider world of culture via books, movies, and the theater. Baldwin says of her:
I loved her, of course, and absolutely, with a child’s love… It is certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people – though God knows, I have often wished to murder more than one or two. But Bill Miller… was not white for me in the way, for example, that Joan Crawford was white, in the way that the landlords and the storekeepers and the cops and most of my teachers were white…
It’s with Bill that he goes to see 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and it’s on seeing Bette Davis and her “pop eyes popping” on screen that he’s led to the following epiphany.
For here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly.
Image of Bette Davis from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000012/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
…I sensed something menacing and unhealthy (for me certainly) in the face on the screen, I gave Davis’s skin the dead-white, greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held just the same by the tense intelligence of the forehead, the disaster of the lips: and when she moved, she moved just like a n——.
Bette Davis’ unlikely presence represents a triumph to him – the triumph of turning one’s supposed flaws into one’s assets and weapons.
For I was not only considered by my father to be ugly. I was considered by everyone to be “strange,” including my poor mother who didn’t, however, beat me for it. Well, if I was “strange” – and I knew that I must be, otherwise people would not have treated me so strangely, and I would not have been so miserable – perhaps I could find a way to use my strangeness. A “strange” child, anyway, dimly and fearfully apprehends that the years are not likely to make him less strange. Therefore, if he wishes to live, he must calculate, and I knew that I had to live.
More epiphanies await. And we’re only three pages in.
Baldwin next scoops up two books that served as touchstones for him as a child, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities. From his obsessive re-reading of them, he concludes, “It was this particular child’s way of circling around the question of what it meant to be a n—–.”
Because that’s the central issue for him growing up. That, and finding a way beyond that question, beyond that definition. Beyond the constraints and cruelties of the white world.
As the essay continues, Baldwin describes how the movies became a source of fascination and disillusionment for him, a place where he observed the ways in which white people chose to represent black people (when they chose to, which was rare at best); where he observed what white people seemed to think an accurate depiction of reality looked like on their terms, and how far it was from the reality of what his life looked and felt like.
And from there he plunges deeper into a conflation of literature and film, illuminating the ways his consciousness was alerted to the connections between what he was taking in culturally and how that reflected the world he lived in. The real history of poverty, ruin, and “unrelenting hatred” that provided the motivating drive for A Tale of Two Cities was still alive for Baldwin in the faces he saw every day in his neighborhood. And when the revolution finally came in the movie version of the book, the angry mob that Baldwin saw – was white. And the image that was meant to be rousing was one that filled him instead with unease. Which segues into a brief rumination on the idea of vengeance: who has a right to it, and who has access to it.
Because Uncle Tom would not take vengeance into his own hands, he was not a hero for me. Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take.
Streaming like an undercurrent through this time was the issue of Baldwin’s faith. Under increasing pressure from his father, a preacher himself, Baldwin, at the age of fourteen, stopped going to the movies and the theater, and became a preacher. (Heartbreakingly, when he visits Bill Miller to tell her he’s been “saved” and is going to devote himself to the church, she tells him flat out – knowing everything he’s hoping to ignore and why – “I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.”)
For three years, he preached and devoted himself to his faith, only to find that faith continually eroding. A friend, Emile, to whom he had confessed his doubt, takes Baldwin to the movies where Baldwin collapses in tears, forcing them to leave. Putting their friendship on the line, Emile tells Baldwin he has no business preaching the gospel, particularly if he doesn’t believe it himself, and worse, that doing so represents a form of cowardice that he, Emile, won’t tolerate in a friend. He tells Baldwin that he’s going to buy matinee tickets for a show the following Sunday and that he must meet him on the 42nd Street Library steps. If he doesn’t come – if he stays at church – their friendship is over.
Of course, Baldwin meets him, And it turns out the matinee isn’t just any old show. It’s a performance of Native Son, directed by Orson Welles, and featuring Canada Lee.
I will not forget Canada Lee’s performance as long as I live. Canada Lee was Bigger Thomas, but he was also Canada Lee: his physical presence like the physical presence of Paul Robeson, gave me the right to live. He was not at the mercy of my imagination, as he would have been, on the screen: he was on the stage in flesh and blood, and I was, therefore, at the mercy of his imagination.
Image of Canada Lee from http://www.harlemworldmag.com/canada-lee-born-in-harlem-video/
The last time Baldwin had been in the theater, just before his desperate religious conversion, he’d gone with Bill Miller to see Orson Welles’ all-black production of Macbeth. Though he briefly comments on not being prepared for the impact that seeing black people on stage would have on him, he chooses instead to focus on the larger impact the theater has in general compared to the movies, particularly the distance or lack of distance between the audience and the performers. In the theater, he says:
One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are creating each other… we are all each other’s flesh and blood. This is the truth which it is very difficult for the theater to try to deny, and when it attempts to do so the same thing happens to the theater as happens to the church: it becomes sterile and irrelevant, a blasphemy, and the true believer goes elsewhere – carrying, as it happens, the church and the theater with him, and leaving the form behind.
And then he takes it one step further.
For the church and the theater are carried within us, and it is we who create them, out of our need and out of an impulse more mysterious than our desire. If this seems to be saying the life of the theater and the life of the church are dependent on maverick freak poets and visionaries, I can only point out that these difficult creatures are also our flesh and blood, and are also created by our need and out of an impulse more mysterious than our desire.
To that I can only humbly respond, Amen.
Image from http://allthingsjamesbaldwin.tumblr.com/
* * *
In the next section, “Who saw him die? I, said the Fly,” Baldwin grapples with films such as Birth of a Nation, Lawrence of Arabia, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and The Defiant Ones, as well as a few justifiably lesser known works, like the incoherent, sensationalist French film, I Spit on Your Grave, and the schmaltzy, anti-Communist dud, My Son, John.
Baldwin handily lays bare the racist and/or homophobic foundations beneath the surface of these films, dealing out to each one a critique that amounts to a kind of deep psychoanalysis. His various takes on the unaddressed colonial mentality percolating throughout Lawrence of Arabia, the self-congratulatory, pseudo-enlightened 1960s liberal “tolerance” of black people in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and the failed attempts of white Hollywood, and by extension white America, to be brave and address head on the legacy of bigotry in both In the Heat of the Night and The Defiant Ones, are revelatory in their insights and withering in their assessments.
Yet despite the inspired fluidity of the prose, the writing gets bogged down at times in the necessary longueurs of plot description. And while that can’t be avoided, it doesn’t help matters that Baldwin doesn’t think much of these films to begin with.
Because here’s where things get sticky. The problem, as I see it, is that while the opening of Devil brilliantly depicts the birth and development of Baldwin’s consciousness (and double-consciousness) in a fascinating, deceptively loose, almost free-associative style, what follows from that is the repeated application of that percipient, highly stylized consciousness to a film industry that by and large never developed much of a critical self-consciousness of its own. Baldwin’s work is always illuminating to read, always instructive, no matter what the subject matter is, and such is the case here. But what’s missing seems to be a crucial lack of subject matter. These movies, for all their flaws or virtues, don’t seem to me to be worthy targets for Baldwin’s firepower. Yes, they were popular and influential and because of that he’s taking pains to expose and hopefully contain that “influence.” Yet the question that surfaced for me was, surely he could have put his talent to better use?
But again, the fault lies not with Baldwin, but with the anemic, predominantly white, mainstream film culture of that time (and this one.) As he puts it:
It is scarcely possible to think of a black actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been seriously challenged to deliver the best that is in him… The moments given us by black performers exist so far beneath, or beyond, the American apprehensions that it is difficult to describe them.
Think of it – who was attempting to film an accurate version of black life in America when Baldwin was young? How many people are doing that now (on the mainstream level)? Where were the starring roles for black actors then? Where are they now? As it was in his childhood, so it is for us now, albeit slightly improved.
But by whose standards? Whose films are getting the exposure?
* * *
From the age of twenty-four, Baldwin had led an itinerant existence, shuttling between France, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.S. But the burgeoning Freedom Movement of the late 1950s and 60s called him back to the States and he made a choice to stay, throwing himself into the cause. And no matter the intensity of the ire and moral outrage he unleashed in every speech or interview he gave during that time, or unfurled in his now-legendary books – Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time – he never failed to leaven his rhetoric with a message of love while holding out some kind of hope for the possibility of change, even if that hope was a despairing kind.
But the murder of Medger Evers in 1963, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X later in the decade, left the Freedom Movement in tatters and its stated aims – racial equality and justice, economic parity, means of self-determination – tragically and dangerously out of reach for many.
The new leaders to emerge from the ruins of the movement, particularly those from the Black Panther Party, advocated violent revolution as the only means for achieving justice and overthrowing the lethally stubborn, white social structure. They had no patience for listening to any more excuses or rationales from so-called white leaders. The time for talk was over. The fire next time had arrived. And Baldwin’s stance, a mercurial blend of King’s pacifism and Malcolm X’s anger, in addition to his openness about his homosexuality, transformed him into a target of scorn for the Panthers, leaving him open to accusations of self-hatred, cowardice, and perhaps most damning of all, being out of touch with the realities of black life in America.
Baldwin, exhausted, antagonized, and increasingly marginalized, left America again. The dreaming, feverish country, whose pulse he had held and counted for years, had suddenly been convulsed by riots and murder, and in waking, had shaken off his grip. He returned to his chosen place of exile in St. Paul de Vence, France. And after publishing the bitter novel, If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974, it was in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, when he came out with The Devil Finds Work. And I think that this lack of connection with his home, both physical and psychic, accounts for the fact that the majority of the movies Baldwin examines in Devil are from not just the past, but from his past, when he was still living in America, and was still a venerated and valued voice.
* * *
When he does catch up to the then-present in the final section, “Where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored,” the book begins to lose steam.
Baldwin begins by recounting his own experiences in the belly of the beast – Hollywood – when he went there to work on a screenplay based on the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Baldwin’s work was later published in book form as One Day When I Was Lost. You can read more about Spike Lee’s use of Baldwin’s screenplay treatment for his own 1992 film, Malcolm X, here.)
Suffice it to say, he had a rough time of it, finding himself quickly saddled with a co-writer whose job it was to take Baldwin’s daily output and “translate” it into safe, palatable Hollywood fodder. After a few weeks, Baldwin took his script and walked. What remained at stake for him was veracity – conveying something genuine and maybe even “true” about the African-American experience – and he knew he was in a place that still wasn’t ready for that.
Which leads into his blistering assessment of the 1972 Diana Ross vehicle, Lady Sings the Blues, which “pretends to be based on Billie Holiday’s autobiography…”
I’ll just step back here and let Mr. Baldwin continue:
Lady Sings the Blues is related to the black American experience in about the same way, and to the same extent that Princess Grace Kelly is related to the Irish potato famine: by courtesy… It has absolutely nothing to do with Billie, or with jazz, or with any other kind of music, or the risks of an artist, or American life, or black life, or narcotics, or the narcotics laws, or clubs, or managers, or policemen, or despair, or love. The script is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous.
See what I mean? Even when he’s dealing with substandard material, he makes Art out of it. And he never allows his outrage and disgust to rise above the banks of his consciousness. His prose remains fluid and shimmering, controlled and commanding. But it’s like watching Muhammad Ali work a speed bag when you’d much rather see him tangle with Joe Frazier.
The book ends with The Exorcist, and Baldwin saying that the film seems to be an outgrowth of hysterical, collective (white) guilt, manifested from the fears of those without any sort of religious faith. Maybe so. But sometimes a scary movie is just a scary movie. (And Richard Pryor’s take on it makes Baldwin’s seem fairly ridiculous.) I began to feel like Baldwin was straining a bit. Then he goes on to say that the devil is actually in all of us:
…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 eyes 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.
The specific, pointed list above that he compiled about Lady Sings the Blues’ shortcomings becomes here a random list of people and, as such, has no real charge. It’s part of an unfortunate and uncharacteristic vagueness that comes over the end of Devil, as if Baldwin had suddenly decided to take it on himself to summon up and name all the evils of the world – something nobody’s capable of doing, not even him. It’s as if he wound up performing being James Baldwin and playing his role of truth teller to carry him through to the end. But I felt that he’d already made his point.
* * *
I can’t help but wonder what Baldwin would think of the movies today. How would he respond to the work of Julie Dash or Charles Burnett or Spike Lee? Would he praise Twelve Years a Slave or would he suffer the way Armand White did for speaking out against it? What would he make of What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Color Purple? Beasts of the Southern Wild? Gimme the Loot? Fruitvale Station? Any of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies?
The Devil Finds Work is not his best book but I recommend it all the same. There is a vital source in Baldwin’s prose, a soul, if you will, that guides his hand and mind and imprints itself on every page he writes. That remains a rare and special quality.