By John Talbird.

Love has never been a popular movement. And no one has ever wanted, really, to be free. The world is held together…by the love and passion of a very few people. Otherwise, of course, you can despair. You can walk down the street of any city…and look around you. What you’ve got to remember is what you’re looking at is also you…You could be that monster, you could be that cop. And you’ve got to decide in yourself not to be.”

–James Baldwin

James Baldwin speaks these words near the end of British filmmaker Terence Dixon’s short film, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971). In profile on a floral loveseat, camera close-up on his face, Baldwin holds forth passionately to Dixon off-camera. We might think that Baldwin’s second person “you” is the generic you, a you who might be anyone, particularly the white liberal who thinks they are on the right side of history. But we’ve just watched most of this doc in which, early on, Dixon complains—in an objective-sounding expository voiceover—that, after shooting began, Baldwin’s “attitude began to change and he became less cooperative.” We have come to understand that this is the crux of the film, the story that Dixon does not know that he is telling: In the act of being the subject for Dixon’s film, Baldwin critiques it and critiques the self-satisfied and self-serving certainty that drives many white liberals at this point in mid-century Europe. We can hear this attitude in the paternalistic questions that Dixon asks, off-screen, to Baldwin in the final interview. He wants to know why Baldwin writes essays or gets involved with political issues when he could just go off by himself and write fiction. He argues that Baldwin’s fiction is more affecting and effective than his essays. He says—without evidence—that more white people read his novels than Black.

This would be just another bad interview if not for the fact that the documentary opens with a metatextual struggle between director and subject. Baldwin takes the filmmakers to the Bastille and says when Dixon asks why he was brought there:

People came out into the streets not very long ago to tear down this prison. And my point is that the prison is still here, inside. We build it all the time. I’m speaking about my own country more than France. I represent here many political prisoners right now in America today…When they tore this prison down that was a great event in European history and Europe understands that. I am trying to tear a prison down too. That event hasn’t occurred yet, in European imagination. I am still, for Europe, a savage. When a white man tears down a prison, he is trying to liberate himself. When I am tearing down a prison, I am simply turning into another savage…You are my warden. I am battling you. Not you, Terry, but you the English, you the French….”

Baldwin’s N****r (1968)

We see, though, over the course of this thirty-minute film that, indeed, Baldwin is battling Terence Dixon, so comfortable in his white, European privilege and sophistication that he can’t understand that by insisting on making a certain type of film that defines Baldwin’s work—and, thus, Baldwin, the man—he is engaging in a kind of colonialism. Baldwin resists and, I think most viewers will agree, he remains free when the credits roll despite the best efforts of the filmmakers.

This is one of three short films that will be playing under the program title, “James Baldwin Abroad,” at New York City’s historic Film Forum cinema, January 6 to 12. The other two, Baldwin’s N****r (1968) directed by Horace Ové and “James Baldwin: From Another Place” (1973) directed by Sedat Pakay, are set in London and Istanbul respectively, the former 46 minutes and the later a brisk twelve. Baldwin’s N****r is a recording of Baldwin giving a talk at the West Indian Student Centre in London. The title comes from the fact that the vast number of Black men and women in the West have been effectively cut off from their history. “My entry into America is a bill of sale…At some point in our history, I became Baldwin’s N****r. That’s how I got my name.” Baldwin calls out America and its inability to confront its own racism as played out in its streets of America and the jungles of Vietnam:

What you have to look at is what is really happening in this country…Brother is murdering brother knowing that he is his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It is a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it. That great Western house I come from is one house and I am one of the children of that house. Simply, I am the most despised member of that house. And it is because the American people are unable to face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them. My blood, my father’s blood is in that soil. They can’t face that. And that is why the city of Detroit went up in flames. And that is why the city of Saigon was under martial law. I know that in four hundred years in that house they do not know who I am, and I cannot marry their daughters, or go to their churches. I would have to be a much more stupid man than I am to believe that they know anything at all about those people in the Asian jungles.”

The film is mostly this talk with very little camera movement, minimal edits. The comedian and activist Dick Gregory also speaks at the end. The highlight, though, is the Q&A after the prepared remarks. Audience members ask a range of questions regarding issues such as colorism, American Blacks’ attitudes toward Christianity, and why Black Americans use the word “Negro” and not “Black.” Baldwin responds to each of these queries with patience, respect, humor, and detail. Even when one of the few white people in attendance stands and asks about the place of the white liberal in the Black Power movement, despite the jeers from the audience, Baldwin gives a sober and respectful answer without hostility.

James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973): “The best of the three films is the briefest. From Another Place, in just twelve minutes, shows us what a documentary can do when it neither tries to shape the artist to certain preconceived ideas….”

The best of the three films is the briefest. From Another Place, in just twelve minutes, shows us what a documentary can do when it neither tries to shape the artist to certain preconceived ideas (“Meeting the Man”) nor objectively (passively? boringly?) documents the artist at a specific historical event. The director Sedat Pakay was an internationally known photographer who studied with Walker Evans and had a long-running project of photographing famous artists. In addition to Baldwin, he photographed Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Joseph Albers, and Gordon Parks. He also made a short documentary about Josef and Anni Albers and two about Walker Evans.

The most honest, vulnerable moments of any of these three films about Baldwin takes place in the opening minutes of Pakay’s documentary where we watch the author telling the beads on a rosary and then immediately cutting to him waking in bed. As we hear Baldwin speak in voiceover about why he spends so much time out of the states, he gets up wearing only white briefs, flips open the curtains to gaze out into the sunny day, wanders around the room, smokes, lounges in bed, checks the time. Then we see Baldwin, nattily dressed, wandering around a busy square, people staring at him—or at the camera, it’s impossible to tell which, quite possibly both since he seems to be the only person of African descent in the vicinity. The crowd gets denser at a certain point and, after some silent discussion with, presumably, Pakay behind the camera, he circles around the mass of people looking for a way in, trying to see what everyone is listening to, what they’re watching. Eventually, he finds a break in the crowd and a man comes toward the camera, gesturing sternly, and we immediately cut away to bookstalls in the streets where Baldwin unhurriedly browses, discovering one of his own books, Kara Yabanci, which Google Translate tells me is Turkish for “Black Stranger.” We then cut back to Baldwin’s bedroom, at his desk, prayer beads in hand, responding to a question about his sexuality. The camera tracks in on Baldwin’s profile, two angry pimples on the side of his face, and we see and hear the words coming out of his mouth diegetically for the first and only time in the film. He lights a cigarette and the camera moves in on it as he speaks:

My relationships with men, with women…are not to be talked about. I’ve loved a few men, I’ve loved a few women. And a few people have loved me. I suppose that’s all that saved my life…The trick is to say ‘yes’ to life. Only we in the 20th century are so obsessed about the details of anybody’s sex life. I don’t think those details make any difference. In my own experience, I’ve observed that American men are paranoid on the subject of homosexuality, are terrified about it in some very unrealistic way. Because if it’s there, it’s there, and it’s been in the world for thousands of years….”

As he speaks these words, music comes into the soundtrack. We cut to Baldwin on a rooftop, down in the street below, a man wrestling another man in a bear suit. But no, it’s not a bear suit, it’s a real bear. There is another bear on a leash, a man playing a percussion instrument—street performers. Baldwin gets his shoes shined, feeds the pigeons, rides in a boat, drinks espresso, all to the strains of this music—acoustic guitar, percussion, moaning vocals, singing without words—by Linda and Sonny Sharrock and their band Savages.

It’s a small miracle, a jewel of a documentary, but finally the only of the three that is great as film art. Meeting the Man is worth seeing as an object lesson in how not to make a documentary and Baldwin’s N****r is worthwhile as a document of a specific time and place. But if people want to get to know Baldwin as a man, artist, and thinker, obviously, the best way to do that is to read his work, particularly his essays and novels. But if they want to see and hear him talk, the best way to do that is to watch Raoul Peck’s brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), a treasure trove almost entirely composed of Baldwin’s voice—in archival footage and also as performed by Samuel L. Jackson. It was the documentary that reminded the contemporary world that Baldwin wasn’t just a great writer, but that he was a scintillating speaker and one of our great public intellectuals. And if you’ve already seen Peck’s documentary, then you’ll probably want to see these three lesser films anyway.

John Talbird is the author of the novel The World Out There (Madville Publishing, 2020) and a chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar, 2016). His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. He is Associate Editor, Fiction, for Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in New York City.

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