The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s upcoming four-day program The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film (named after Baldwin’s classic 1976 collection of film criticism and memoir,) September 11-14, promises to highlight for New Yorker film-goers of one of James Baldwin’s most under-sung gifts: his insights as a film and literary critic. While his influential, inimitable talent as an orator and deeply moral thinker is clearly traceable to his church roots (and his complex relationship to said church), his love for the written word and his appreciation for the power of cinema in shaping or misshaping popular imagination not only fuel his intellectual engine, but are ripe subject matter for him.

Last year, writing for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky argued that Baldwin – not film criticism icon Pauline Kael, not Time magazine’s Richard Corliss, and not Roger Ebert – is the greatest American film critic ever. Berlatsky writes:

Published in 1976, [The Devil Finds Work] can’t be categorized. It’s a memoir of Baldwin’s life watching, or influenced by, or next to cinema. It’s a critique of the racial politics of American (and European) film. And it’s a work of film theory, with Baldwin illuminating issues of gaze and identification in brief, lucid bursts. The dangerous appeal of cinema, he writes, can be to escape — “surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen.” And “no one,” he acidly adds, “makes his escape personality black.”

Baldwin shows that criticism is art, which means that it doesn’t need a purpose or a rationale other than truth, or beauty, or keeping faith, or doing whatever it is we think art is trying to do.

[Read the whole piece here.]

According to program notes, Baldwin on Film, co-presented with Columbia University School of the Arts Office of Community Outreach and Education, is “an attempt to assemble and reflect on Baldwin’s early and lasting fascination with American cinema. The series will feature his numerous appearances on television; filmic documents of his sojourns in Paris, Istanbul, San Francisco, and London; film adaptations of novels that preoccupied Baldwin, such as A Tale of Two Cities and Native Son; and a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (aka The Naked Night), which Baldwin singled out for praise. Documentaries in which he played a significant part or of which he was the subject, such as I Heard It Through the GrapevineJames Baldwin’s Harlem, Take This Hammer (screening in an extended “director’s cut’), and the newly re-mastered The Price of a Ticket, will also be featured. The survey will close with never-before-seen raw footage from Baldwin’s 1987 funeral service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (only portions of which were seen in The Price of a Ticket), with stirring eulogies from Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka.”

For more info, go here.