Out of the Celluloid Closet

What James Baldwin’s Film Writing Teaches Us

· Updated on October 4, 2023

My friend and I have a continuing argument about media. We get to talking about our lives, and I explain the huge gap that I feel between my experience of the world and the world I see on the screen. I ask how it could be that something ends up on the screen if it doesn’t, in some way, even ideologically, reflect the way that some vocal majority feels about how life works.

“Movies and TV aren’t real!” My friend ends up yelling at me. I acknowledge this—but I also remind them that I’m not saying that they are. Film and TV don’t show real life: what they show is a summary of our collective fears, desires, assumptions, and expectations for what life looks like at this moment in time. This is the reason I’ve been drawn to media for so long. In the past, I’ve gotten into similar arguments. One time when I was visiting colleges, we went to someplace that barely had a film department. When I asked about it, one of the faculty members dismissed me, saying that films basically weren’t important because they didn’t tell you anything real. As an example, they used Gone with the Wind. “What can a movie like that tell you about the Civil War?” They scoffed. “Nothing!”

To me, this person had missed the point entirely: the purpose of Gone with the Wind is not to teach people about the Civil War. It’s to teach people about 1939, the year it was made. I’ve had similar arguments, throughout my life, with people who don’t seem to understand what film essentially does, at least, what it does and has always done in America.

Watching the brilliant documentary I Am Not Your Negro only solidified this position for me. The film uses spliced-together images from newsreels, Hollywood films, and TV appearances to tell the story of iconic queer Black writer James Baldwin’s 30-page, never-published but proposed book on anti-Black racism in America. And it’s no mistake that many of Baldwin’s most salient introductions to our country’s racist ideology come in the form of 1930s Hollywood movies. The ones he saw as a kid that painted him and the people he knew in ridiculous, offensive terms and tried to sell that portrait back to him and other Black Americans eager for a day’s entertainment. It’s those images—those ideas that stuck with him throughout his life—that continued to inform his politics and worldview. There is no biography, no real chronology. It’s not a film about James Baldwin: it’s a film about how James Baldwin saw America and its hatred of Black people. Baldwin’s understanding of this country has always been unflinching and true, and feels more and more prescient as the country finally begins the work of acknowledging its racist past.

Baldwin’s subject was American denial: specifically white American denial. And this takes shape most effectively in his film writing, collected in 1976’s “The Devil Finds Work.”

In voiceover, we hear Baldwin discuss the moments in film history that stuck with him the most: The endless “mammy” caricatures, the fear on the face of the Black janitor accused of murder in 1937’s race drama They Won’t Forget. He confesses to hating the Uncle Tom antics of performers like Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, while admitting that it was “possible that their comic, bug-eyed terror contained the truth.”

“Heroes, as far as I could, see were white,” he explains, noting that he came to his early knowledge of this through the movies and the movies alone: “because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.” But there were things about the movies that he loved, too: famously Bette Davis, who reminded him of his mother, and Joan Crawford, who made a name for herself in silent films and early talkies for performing dances originated in Harlem onscreen, for a presumed white audience.

The tension between loving the movies and hating what they teach you about yourself is something I understand all too well. Movies teach us about how to feel: specifically how to hate ourselves and all the reasons there are to do so. He felt it, and I feel it. It’s never as simple as to say “I love the movies” or to acknowledge that the cinema and its many worlds comprise your refuge. The thing that makes you feel so good is also a lie, a fantasy that you know cannot be true. For in the end, it hates you, when all you’ve done is love it passionately.

Of course, the hatred and intolerance Baldwin faced was far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with in my life as a white person. Carrying the weight of being part of two of the most hated groups in America—Black people and queer people—at the height of that hatred’s social acceptability took a toll, which lead him to live in Paris as an expatriate for years, a place where he could relax enough to actually sit down and get to writing. But he returned, and when he did, it was to speak on the Black experience and the civil rights movement to a host of white faces, at Cambridge, on television, in uncomfortable-looking “debates” where the debate topic is, essentially, Baldwin’s own existence. When he came back to America, it was just in time to see the great civil rights leaders of his day get snuffed out one by one, starting with activist and NAACP president Medgar Evers in 1963, and followed by the deaths of Malcolm X in 1965 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, all of whom were murdered before the age of 40.

The three deaths lead Baldwin toward a project he would never finish: a book retelling and combining the three murders as a way to discuss being Black in America. The film takes up the challenge, using Baldwin’s words (read in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson) to weave together a story that’s as much about the present as it is about Baldwin’s contemporary struggles. Because as most of us know, not much has changed since that time. The themes and false histories and learned hatreds white Americans had access to in the 60s are the ones certain of us still cling to now. Baldwin foresaw replacement theory before it became a New York Times byword: because when it comes to racism in this country, nothing under the sun is new. It’s just becoming clearer for white people to see.

It’s a smart film precisely because it resists the temptation to boil Baldwin’s life and works down to simple biography. It does for him the thing that all writers hope will be done for them: uses his words not to create a narrative about his life, but a story about his work’s increasing vitality and importance in the years since his death. And it does this in the form that Baldwin loved and hated so much, that specifically American format of the feature film.

Because Baldwin’s struggle with America is of necessity a struggle with the movies: those beautiful images that always let you down, often violently. “This is not the land of the free,” he says near the film’s end. “It is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.”

It was true when he said it, and it’s true now.♦

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