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Probing the set of assumptions that govern American cinematic expectations, James Baldwin’s 1976 book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, is as much preoccupied with the seductive and distorted power of American cinema as it is with the complex racial politics that inform such cultural production. From his intriguing identification with Bette Davis, to piercing analyses of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Exorcist, to an extended discussion of The Defiant Ones, Baldwin lays bare our subconscious investments and confirms that “cinema is the language of our dreams.”

The violent embrace of categories and the aversion to real human life and passions are for Baldwin evident everywhere in American cinema. In his characteristic declarative manner, Baldwin recalls a “Negro” traditional that intones, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do,” and continues: “No American film, relating to blacks, can possibly incorporate this observation. This observation . . . denies, simply, the validity of the legend which is responsible for these films: films which exist for the sole purpose of perpetuating the legend.” With historical sweep and specificity, Baldwin narrates the competing and entangled set of interests that frustrate honest American filmmaking. The web of impulses and anxieties that consumes the nation and drives the production of such films is almost entirely bound up in the profit imperative on one hand, and a deep psychic need for the “preservation of innocence” on the other. The suspension of disbelief and the inexplicable narrative turns that lurch the viewer from “one preposterous proposition to another” places one at the mercy of plots of fantastical national fictions.

Baldwin’s analysis in The Devil Finds Work begins with the early depictions of racial and class difference on display in 19th-century literature and grows directly out of his experience of reading Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and his “obsession” with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “trying,” as he laments, “to find something out, sensing something in the book of immense import for me.” The scenes of righteous indignation, cross-racial longing, biting sentimentality, and a violent coming to racial and economic terms that Baldwin considers function not only to reproduce American attitudes at particular historical moments, but also work to distract the national imagination from the necessary moral reckoning with the thorny and too often fatal history of the country. For, ultimately, Baldwin “suspected, dreadfully,” that this world of make-believe was connected to his own reality, must “have something to do with me.”

This survey 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 Grapevine, James Baldwin’s Harlem, Take This Hammer (screening in an extended “director’s cut’), and the newly remastered 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.

Special Thanks:
Pat Hartley; Lynanne Schweighofer (Library of Congress); Chris Chouinard (Park Circus); Brian Belovarac (Janus Films); Ron Simon (The Paley Center for Media); Jack Hazan; Fleur Buckley and George Watson (British Film Institute); Sedat Pakay; Ashley Clark; Elena Rossi-Snook and Johnny Gore (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts); Brian Graney (The Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University); Jennifer Bertani (WNET); Gloria Miles; Kristie Nakamura (Warner Bros. Classics); Alex Cherian (San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive); Marcia Sells (Columbia University); Christina Rumpf (Columbia University); Karen Thorsen & Douglas K. Dempsey; and Shola Lynch (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

Programmed by Rich Blint and Jake Perlin