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.
James Baldwin was a vocal critic of Hollywood, but he was also a cinephile, and his critique of film was not so much of the medium itself, but of the uses to which it was put. Baldwin saw in film the chance to transform both politics and art—if only film could be transformed itself. This essay blends readings of archival materials, literature, film, and print culture to examine three distinct modes in Baldwin’s ongoing quest to revolutionize film. First, I argue, literature served as a key site to practice being a filmmaker, as Baldwin adapted cinematic grammars in his fiction and frequently penned scenes of filmgoing in which he could, in effect, direct his own movies. Secondly, I show that starting in the 1960s, Baldwin took a more direct route to making movies, as he composed screenplays, formed several production companies, and attempted to work in both Hollywood and the independent film scene in Europe. Finally, I explore how Baldwin sought to change cinema as a performer himself, in particular during his collaboration on Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982). This little-known film follows Baldwin as he revisits key sites from the civil rights movement and reconnects with activist friends as he endeavors to construct a revisionist history of race in America and to develop a media practice capable of honoring Black communities.
This book engages in a critical encounter with the work of Stanley Cavell on cinema, focusing skeptical attention on the claims made for the contribution of cinema to the ethical character of democratic life. In much of Cavell's writing on film he seeks to show us that the protagonists of the films he terms "remarriage comedies" live a form of perfectionism that he upholds as desirable for contemporary democratic society: moral perfectionism. Films are often viewed on television, and television shows can have "filmlike" qualities. The book addresses the nature of viewing cinematic film as a mode of experience, arguing against Cavell that it is akin to dreaming rather than lived consciousness and, crucially, cannot be shared. It mirrors the celebrated dialogue between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean D'Alembert on theatre. The book articulates the implications of philosophical pessimism for addressing contemporary culture in its relationship to political life. It clarifies how The Americans resembles the remarriage films and can illuminate the issues they raise. The tragedy of remarriage, would be a better instructor of a democratic community, if such a community were prepared to listen. The book suggests that dreaming, both with and without films, is not merely a pleasurable distraction but a valuable pastime for democratic citizens. Finally, it concludes with a robust response from Dienstag to his critics.
As originally conceived by Colin Young and subsequently worked out in practice by David and Judith MacDougall and various other film-makers, the praxis of Observational Cinema in its classical form involved very much more than observation: not only was it a particular ‘way of seeing’, it was also a particular ‘way of doing’ ethnographic film-making. Central to this praxis, as described in earlier chapters, was a collaborative relationship with the subjects, the adoption of an ‘unprivileged’ perspective in both shooting and editing, and a low
This book offers a startling re-evaluation of what has until now been seen as the most critically lacklustre period of the British film history. It includes fresh assessment of maverick directors; Pat Jackson, Robert Hamer and Joseph Losey, and even of a maverick critic Raymond Durgnat. The book features personal insights from those inidividually implicated in 1950s cinema; Corin Redgrave on Michael Redgrave, Isabel Quigly on film reviewing, and Bryony Dixon of the BFI on archiving and preservation. A classic image from 1950s British cinema would be Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea, the epitome of quiet English integrity. Raymond Durgnat's A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence, which deals extensively with British films of the 1950s, was written in the mid-1960s and was published in 1970. In a 1947 article called 'Angles of Approach' Lindsay Anderson delivered a fierce attack on contemporary British film culture, outlining a model for a devoted politics of creation, well in line with what we would later understand as auteurism and art cinema aesthetics . The war films of the 1950s together constitute the assented-to record of the emotions and moral judgments called upon to set in order those disorderly events. The book also talks about the Festival of Britain, White Corridors, and four Hamer's post-Ealing films: The Spider and the Fly, The Long Memory, Father Brown and The Scapegoat. A number of factors have contributed to the relative neglect of the 1950s as a decade in British cinema history.
To counterbalance the rather tepid humanism of our
cinema, it might also be said that it is snobbish, anti-intelligent,
emotionally inhibited, willfully blind to the conditions and
problems of the present, dedicated to an out of date, exhausted
national idea. (Lindsay Anderson
than that, and Bergman was not exactly known for
his willingness to improvise. So what should one make of this proposed
ad-libbing? The only reasonable explanation is that the Bergman who
wrote Hour of the Wolf was writing a work of literature rather
than a film. (The fact that the work was eventually adapted for cinema
should not deter us from drawing this conclusion.)
It should be mentioned, however, that these notes are not
included in the published English translation of Hour of the
Wolf . In fact, this
Visual Advocacy in the Early Decades of Humanitarian Cinema
pictures to produce an immersive spectacle, relying on the cinematic realism of non-fiction movies to increase the ‘perceptual experience’ and the ‘aesthetics of astonishment’ of the viewers ( Crawford-Holland, 2018 ). Back in the 1920s, ‘cinema … “virtually” extended human perceptions to events and locations beyond their physical and temporal bounds’ ( Uricchio, 1997 : 119). Humanitarian cinema thus participated in transnational campaigns aiming to mobilize and sensitize national audiences. More specifically, these movies also advocated on behalf of distant
Juvenile actors and humanitarian sentiment in the 1940s
Rehabilitation Administration, stated in his November 1943 acceptance
address: ‘We must be guided not alone by the compelling force of human
sentiments but also by dictates of sound common sense and
of mutual interest.’ 8
However, it is to those ‘human sentiments’ that Hollywood cinema’s
‘sorrowful spectacle’ of suffering children (sorrowful meaning both
showing and causing grief) is most likely (and
Filmmaker Karen Thorsen gave us James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the award-winning documentary that is now considered a classic. First broadcast on PBS/American Masters in August, 1989—just days after what would have been Baldwin’s sixty-fifth birthday—the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. It was not the film Thorsen intended to make. Beginning in 1986, Baldwin and Thorsen had been collaborating on a very different film project: a “nonfiction feature” about the history, research, and writing of Baldwin’s next book, “Remember This House.” It was also going to be a film about progress: about how far we had come, how far we still have to go, before we learn to trust our common humanity. But that project ended abruptly. On 1 December 1987, James Baldwin died—and “Remember This House,” book and film died with him. Suddenly, Thorsen’s mission changed: the world needed to know what they had lost. Her alliance with Baldwin took on new meaning. The following memoir—the second of two serialized parts—explores how and why their collaboration began. The first installment appeared in the sixth volume of James Baldwin Review, in the fall of 2020; the next stage of their journey starts here.