Words from a native son

Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

James Baldwin and his books have enjoyed varying degrees of attention and praise since the late literary icon burst onto the scene in 1953, but they’ve undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years. That’s thanks in no small part to Raoul Peck’s masterful documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Barry Jenkin’s lush adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2019) and a renewed interest in Black voices following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Today, Baldwin’s works are found in just about every bookstore and library — his The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, is finally available in paperback — documentaries from long ago are now available on streaming, and a handful of his more famous quotes routinely appear in work email signatures.

That could drive one to cynicism, but the beauty of Baldwin is that the words still pulse. Pull The Devil Finds Work (1976) off the shelf, and you will discover film criticism practiced at a high level. Watch Baldwin on screen, and you’ll see a thinker in complete control of language and thought. And you can, thanks to The Criterion Channel’s new program, available starting Feb. 13: James Baldwin On-Screen, three features and three shorts that will engage and challenge you in ways you didn’t think possible.

Headlining the program is Go Tell It on the Mountain, a 1985 American Playhouse adaptation of Baldwin’s first novel, featuring performances from Ving Rhames, Giancarlo Esposito and Alfre Woodard, each bringing everything to the table. Director Stan Lathan is faithful to Baldwin’s prose, and though the film bears the usual production signs of a made-for-TV movie, there is an undeniable quality in the writing and performances that is captivating.

There’s a feeling of autobiography in Go Tell It on the Mountain — it permeates all of Baldwin’s books — which is sussed out in the feature-length documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989). Made just after the writer’s death, The Price of the Ticket assembles friends, lovers, biographers and admirers in an informative talking-heads doc. But the real draw here is the copious amount of archival footage of Baldwin giving lectures, appearing on TV and in public debate.

That theme continues through the three short subjects: Baldwin’s Ni**er (1968), Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970) and James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973). But it resonates most powerfully in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck’s synthesis of Baldwin’s prose that attempts to reconstruct the book Baldwin never wrote: Remember This House, which would have told the story of America through the lives of three murdered civil rights leaders and friends of Baldwin — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

With style reminiscent of Marlon Riggs, Peck pulls together literature, cinema and history for a feature-length visual essay of Baldwin’s beliefs and the forces that shaped those beliefs. Samuel L. Jackson narrates, Alexei Aigui’s score ties the themes together, and Baldwin’s prowess comes to the forefront. Michael Ondaatje once likened Baldwin to an “artist-saint.” I Am Not Your Negro is the proof.

Back to those quotes: There is real power in Baldwin’s words. Whether spoken or read, his sentences thunder. Watch the five documentaries in the program and notice how often the filmmakers use Baldwin’s proclamations as punctuation. Maybe that explains the allure of regurgitating his words, even if the speaker isn’t clear on Baldwin’s intent. Thankfully we have the books, interviews and speeches to discover and understand what is really being said. And when we do, the words come to life all over again. 

ON SCREEN: James Baldwin On-Screen, streaming on The Criterion Channel starting Feb. 13.


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