In many ways, I’m ashamed of myself. The name and works of James Baldwin are familiar in terms of title, but the person and characters within are foreign. Yet, no matter how many a Black artists or entertainers name drops him, or we see him pop up in the stories of others, I did not pursue to know and understand this rather eccentric man. One who didn’t rise to fame because he could sing and dance, nor because his tragedy so great it was awe inspiring he survived. He rose to prominence, so it seemed, because, despite America’s history and the death of friends, kin, and family members he could only identify if records existed, he did not hate America. He criticized it, especially its white population who through arrogance or ignorance may have had no love for him, but he didn’t hate it.
Leaving you with what can only be considered an introduction. For it honestly feels like you are given but a taste to one very complex man’s story. One you may feel the need to re-watch to get the full experience of.
Trigger Warning(s): Depictions of dead bodies
Characters & Storyline
This documentary is presented as Baldwin being a witness, not so much a participant, of the civil rights movement. Which perhaps may be an odd way to put it, but it is Baldwin’s own words. For with him part of no organization, yet supporting their cause for a better tomorrow for the American Negro, he was but a witness. However, he was not a witness like an actor for he was engaged with his subjects. Rather than simply be a voyeur, through his wit, academic prowess, and abilities as a lecturer, he was able to hold court and be alluring to the greatest and most influential minds of the 20th century.
That is how this man, one James Baldwin, found himself sitting beside the likes of Robert Kennedy, adored by Maya Angelou, having the devout attention of a man like Malcolm X during his lectures, and perhaps being one of the most beloved figures in the arts. All because, despite what may have happened, and could easily be predicted, there remained this need to be optimistic. There was this need to believe white Americans could do better and see that the Negro was not an old puppet whose decision to become a real boy need be met with hostility. Like as if Negroes are the toys in Toy Story and they decided to stop pretending to be solely for the enjoyment of their owners, just because we wish for the same dignity and honor to be seen as brothers and sisters. Well, If not cousins, as the past relations between races likely make us.
But what perhaps you’ll see the most of is how one man’s hope for America influenced so many and yet he isn’t given the pedestal he deserves. For what book of his is part of a non-African American class’ reading list? Where is his picture and name in American history? Is it buried somewhere in the small piece which acknowledges racism of the 1900s? Somewhere within the chapter that increasingly grows small when on the subject of Native American genocide and Black oppression? I’m many years removed from being in school so I can no longer say.
The line which separates a witness from an actor is very thin indeed. Nevertheless, the line is real.
[…] when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attached the entire power structure of the western world.
I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.
It Illuminates the Shadow Which Walks Amongst So Many Documentaries and Stories
As noted in the intro, James Baldwin is one of the few people that, no matter which civil rights era activist you take interest in, usually he pops up at least once. Often times it is at least one photo, but in other times there is an established relationship with a man, maybe even an archive clip. So while this documentary takes a look at but one aspect of his life, or rather opinion on matters, it does provide just enough of a light to understand why he has often been seen but questionably, seldom heard.
It Connects The Past With The Present
As much as the film is a documentary, it is also a testament to how Baldwin’s optimism, his vision for and of America have both seen progress in some areas and stagnancy in other areas. Decades after his death, we still hear and see many a Black child killed for they seemed like a threat and there is a swift justification provided to the cop as if they killed a known criminal. Yet, at the same time, Baldwin’s hope that one day this divide which keeps one’s public and private interactions between races has dwindled. Interracial couples and children are widely visible as are friendships between the races. Plus, while certainly not a true sign that our nation had become post-racial, the election, and re-election of Barack Obama showed that even when opposed by men who look like the presidents before him, were white, and vastly more privileged, there is enough of America to see past his race and just judge the man by his character.
Another thing it notes is the role of white saviors and heroes in films. As a young man, around 6 years old, he came to realize that the characters of John Wayne weren’t heroes for everyone. John Wayne didn’t look like him, little Jimmy looked like the Indians. Then when he looked for men like his father, again he was met with people with perhaps his physical look, like Stepin Fetchit, but not what he meant to him or as he saw him. These lack of heroes, which remains an issue today, complicated things in James’ 6-year-old mind. Making it so, as an adult, with words to express his puzzlement, he came to realize how when white men pursue vengeance, if not liberty, they are praised. Yet, when it comes to those like Nat Turner, who is directly mentioned by Baldwin, they are demonized and vilified for pursuing the same goals with different skin colors.
Then in terms of white saviors, there was an example I can’t fully recall, featuring the face of a very familiar actress, but it brought about not just how such roles are made to reassure whites, in general, aren’t hated, but also the complications of Baldwin’s life. For, as noted in the next heading, Baldwin was neither a radical nor a non-violent obstructionist. He is noted as the “Great Black hope for the white father” since he was about cooperation and as passionate and vilifying of whites as he may have been, there was this optimism that seemingly acted as some sort of placation.
It Pushes You To Realize The Disconnect, Ignorance, and Difficulties Which Stand in the Way Of Not Just Racial Tolerance or Harmony, But Love
It is made clear that Baldwin wasn’t just a witness because this was his sole desire. If anything, it was the difficulty of participating in any of the major groups dedicated to Black liberation and dignity. The SCLC had its hypocrites who, as many Christians do, take from the bible what they see fit and do not pursue the true meaning of loving one another. The likes of the Black Panthers too radical and Black Muslims perhaps too separatist and with Baldwin not subscribing to the Blue-eyed, White Devil message, they were not for him. Then, when it comes to the NAACP, the classism of the organization, which can be seen with their treatment of Claudette Colvin, kept him from faithfully allying with them as well.
Yet it isn’t just about not finding his tribe, but also the difficulties of dealing with those who’d make ignorant statements. Some of which most may play off, but are very telling. Take, for example, a noted speech by Robert Kennedy as he was rising through the ranks, after being virtually unknown, and now running for president. Baldwin speaks on how odd it is that this man who came out of nowhere predicts it would be 40 years before a negro president when he just showed up onto the scene.
Now, in hindsight, considering the times, this could be considered a harmless statement. Much less, considering it took just a little over 40 years for Obama to be elected, it is a strange premonition. However, from Baldwin’s point of view, it sort of presents the ignorance of the democratic liberal. Those who may mean well but, no matter their intention, still hold a vast ignorance [note] Bill Maher is perhaps the best modern example of this with the way he talks about Muslims [/note]. If only because there is a certain privilege they cannot let go of subconsciously for they were raised in it. So, like someone who was brought up in church, it is as ingrained in them like the teachings of the bible. Meaning that, while they can grow up and deny its existence [note]god in this case[/note] and speak on how they have changed, become evolved, and what have you, those bricks in their foundation will still lead them to say “Bless you” when a person sneezes and “Jesus Christ” when in shock or pain. They may not mean in in the context of what the word exemplifies, but it has become such a part of their lexicon that they don’t take notice or take on the full weight of what they are saying.
On The Fence
It’s Only As Personal As It Relates To His Life in The Shadows of Racial Conversations and Famous Black Names
While it is noted he grew up in New York, moved to Paris, and was a vocal participant, née witness, of the civil rights movement, it brushes over other parts of his life. Which is understandable since this documentary was adapted from an unfinished work which was supposed to be about Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. However, outside of Evers, at least to me, those men are well established. So with every mention of someone you want to assume is one of Baldwin’s past partners, it leads you to wonder if they may introduce the other side of him, a queer man of color, or if they may stick solely to his observations on the lack of civil rights.
Overall: Positive (Worth Seeing)
I must admit, not researching what this documentary was about led me to believe it would just be about Baldwin. With that, I must admit some initial disappointment when I learned it is focused on him, but in comparison, or relation, to Evers, King, and X. However, there is an eloquent manner of how Baldwin presents his thoughts and tells his story that dispel the majority of disappointments. For, in many ways, it is like the big name civil rights leaders are almost Trojan horses used so you can learn and listen to this man known as James Baldwin.
Leading to the reason for the positive rating: While Baldwin’s life story may not be dived into like Maya Angelou’s in And Still I Rise or Nina Simone’s in What Happened, Miss Simone, you are presented just enough to get a taste of his mind and an understanding of why he is an often seen, yet a surprisingly seldom heard, person. For just spending an hour and a half with his thoughts and feelings leaves you with so much to think about. To the point, it almost feels like you would need repeated viewings of this just to fully take note of what he is saying, what is meant, and to even collect a few sentences to refer to at later times. Leading to the hope that Baldwin may get a full-fledged documentary of this caliber, if not a factual biopic. For surely, this will pique your interest on the man’s life.