James Baldwin: I Heard It Through the Grapevine
The shadow cast by the late James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) is so great it envelopes almost every contemporary black writer, activist, academic, thinker, and hyphenate, (men and women,) living and working in this country. (If he were given his full due, white and other non-black writers, activists, academics, etc. would be equally as engaged with and informed by his work and legacy.) It’s an almost impossible measure to live up to, even as we’re inundated with cut-rate Baldwins forging their names and brands in the cultural marketplace. (Baldwin’s towering legacy is sometimes unfairly used to undervalue or dismiss contemporary writers/thinkers, as has recently happened to Ta-Nahesi Coates in some quarters.) The chance to spend time with Baldwin, not just his considerable written output, but any of the countless filmed or recorded interviews and speeches he gave over the course of his career, should be jumped on.
Some months back, the 1982 Baldwin documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine was uploaded on Youtube, and has recently been making the social media rounds again. Filmed in 1980 by co-directors and producers Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley (Baldwin was also a producer,) the film retraces Baldwin’s steps in the late 1950s and the 1960s as he traveled the country to bear witness to the civil rights movement as it was then unfolding. Perhaps the most enduring template of the black American as expatriate, Baldwin opens the film flipping through photographs of that volatile time (Klansmen in full regalia; black people clashing with the police; etc.) stating, “It was 1957, and I left Paris for Little Rock. This is 1980. How many years is that? Nearly a quarter of a century. What has happened to all those people, [all the] children, I knew then? What happened to the country? What does it man for the world? What does it mean for me?”
The resulting eighty-minute film is a sobering catalogue of the ways in which much of the African American community heading into the ‘80s was actually as bad or worse off than they were over two decades earlier. And this is before crack, AIDS, and the policies of Ronald Reagan and a revitalized American right-wing had even fully landed yet. The unexpected ways integration decimated the community is a familiar refrain, as is the absence of community leaders truly engaged with and fighting for black people. As Baldwin walks through D.C., Atlanta, and other civil rights hotspots/historically black neighborhoods and communities, the prognosis is grim. But because of his own scintillating intellect, the ways he perceived and articulated difficult issues, and because of the no-bullshit analysis and conversations in which he engages with grassroots activists and artists alike, the viewer is thoroughly engrossed.
A highlight of the film is Baldwin’s repartee with poet/scholar Sterling Brown. Brown, speaking with the ease and familiarity of an age-old confidante, tells Baldwin early in the documentary, “You are not a sociologist. You are a visionary and a reformer, and if you weren’t so conservative I’d say you were a revolutionary. But of course, I ain’t gon’ say that.” He laughs knowingly.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.