Category Archives: James Baldwin

Raoul Peck Has Made a Work of Essential Viewing

Let me just get this out of my system at the top: I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s exemplary documentary on James Baldwin, was robbed at the Oscars. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see the OJ documentary, and now I really don’t want to. I think OJ mania may tell us a lot about our media-saturated culture, James Baldwin’s life, work, and vision speaks to the entirety of American culture, history, and society. Peck brings that vision to the fore and expertly demonstrates how Baldwin’s analysis of American life, which he developed in the Civil Rights Era, still has application in our post-Ferguson time.

Baldwin famously states, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” In a nation that infamously “forgets” its past — how few of my students know when Pearl Harbor occurred — Baldwin is fierce in his argument (rightly) that the history of slavery and Jim Crow still is very much part of our present. This tenant serves as Peck’s thesis.

The film builds upon Baldwin’s notes for a planned but never completed book Remember This House. It rests on a three-legged stool of Baldwin’s friendships with three very different but significant figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Another important relationship touched upon is his friendship with Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Peck and Baldwin both are emphasizing the importance and synthesis of culture to politics. Baldwin again cogitates on the line between witness and actor (as in someone engaged in political activity); it is a blurred but fine line. And what emerges is how necessary Baldwin was to our changing perceptions during the 1950’s and 1960’s. As much as it was about bus seats and votes and marches, it was also about where those not white fit into the culture. Speaking of a John Wayne Western, the writer has the epiphany that he was the Indians.

I was struck by a clip from The Dick Caveat Show. Baldwin is joined by a saged academic from Yale University (a philosopher I believe). This professor challenges Baldwin on race, but invoking class! Doesn’t Baldwin have more in common with a white author than a black sharecropper? Firstly, I was amazed that this man would use class prejudice as a way of mitigating racial prejudice. Secondly, he — a learned and educated man — fails to grasp the truth in front of him in 1968: race is class.

Peck masterfully employs a large dose of Baldwin’s cultural criticism — particularly as race has been portrayed in American film — as part of his narrative. Why? Because legislative achievements are one thing, but that history Baldwin speaks of lives on in our attitudes and perceptions. It is present.

Samuel L. Jackson reads a number of Baldwin’s letters and essays. I knew going in that he was doing that, but still, I did not recognize — what is his usually distinct — voice. Jackson’s work adds to the power of the documentary.

I found the film so essential that it has inspired me to create a course exclusively on James Baldwin for my university.

Amen Baldwin

During my recent trip to London, I had the opportunity to see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre (best theatre in the world, in my humble opinion). I had been familiar with Baldwin’s novels and essays but never his work for the stage. So this was an opportunity to dive into what was for me an unknown corner of the Baldwin canon.

Benefitting a show at the National, the production was magnificent. Both the gospel choir and jazz trumpet provided texture as well as counterpoint to the drama enacted on stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Secrets and Lies fame) was a revelation as Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a corner church up in Harlem in the 1950’s. Director Rufus Norris recreated Harlem of that era magnificently.

But what I went for was the play. And did I get a play. Written in 1954 after the author had completed his novel Go Tell It on the MountainAmen Corner distinguishes itself for the beauty of its language (this is Baldwin after all) and the complexity of emotions that inform that language. There isn’t a Caucasian character on stage and white America is rarely mentioned, but the audience can feel its presence. Those who attend and lead the church are, for the most part, domestics and servants. Church provides for them an escape but also an opportunity, even if one day a week or late at night, to take charge of their destinies. At the center of the drama are four very strong women who to one degree or another must negotiate the city and life on their own. There are no clear heroes or villains here. Even Sister Moore as she tries to undermine Margaret’s authority is often more tolerant of other people’s life choices than her pastor is.

Margaret is faced with a series of crises in the play. Her wayward husband, Luke (a jazz musician), returns home after a number of years. He is the opposite of everything Margaret in her role as pastor stands for. Luke, however, is dying and wishes to spend his final days with his family. Her son, David, does not wish to continue playing piano for the church, but instead wishes to be a jazz musician like his father. And then there is the rebellion led by Sister Boxer and Sister Moore. What unfolds are the myriad reasons — personal, emotional, intellectual, spontaneous, revelatory — that brought Margaret to a life serving God. Baldwin expertly intertwines all of these reasons to create a full-blooded three-dimensional character. If at that end, we still cannot fully embrace Margaret, we have a thorough understanding and respect of her. We know from Baldwin’s biography that he had a difficult time with organized religion, but he has the compassion to compose a thoughtful and well-balanced portrait.

Of course, as I sat in the theatre in London, I could not help but ask myself, “Why isn’t this play being done in America?” This is an important and vital work — more alive and less musty than other plays from this period we venerate — and tells an important story, like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about both the African-American experience and women’s experiences. So, theatre producers, find a way to put this provocative important beautiful play on stage here in the States. It deserves to be seen.