Baldwin, Racial Melancholy, and the Black Middle Ground
This article uses Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” to consider that literary mode’s corollary in the 1990s New Black Cinema. It argues that recent African American movies posit an alternative to the politics and aesthetics of films by a director such as Spike Lee, one that evinces a set of qualities Baldwin calls for in his essay about Black literature. Among these are what recent scholars such as Ann Anlin Cheng have called racial melancholy or what Kevin Quashie describes as Black “quiet,” as well as variations on Yogita Goyal’s diaspora romance. Films such as Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offer a cinematic version of racial narrative at odds with the protest tradition I associate with earlier Black directors, a newly resonant cinema that we might see as both a direct and an indirect legacy of Baldwin’s views on African American culture and politics.
Aaron Glass (personal communication, December 2018) has suggested that this may be a self-conscious reference to the well-known biblical story of Jonah that was inserted to round off the whale hunting sequence. There is also an intriguing similarity between this shot and the famous shot of Nanook emerging from his igloo to acknowledge the camera in Nanook of the North (see Browne 2014 , 171). Whatever the precise reason for it, this shot can be understood as a ‘cinemaofattractions’ moment that interrupts the general flow of the narrative diegesis