The Devil Finds Work (1976): James Baldwin and American Cinema

James Baldwin’s book-length essay on American cinema is not the kind of film criticism Roger Ebert or Janet Maslin writes. Baldwin doesn’t particularly care which movies should be rated four stars and which movies should be rated two. Unlike Ray Carney, François Truffaut, or Pauline Kael, he’s not a partisan for any one particular kind of cinematic tradition. He doesn’t even particularly like movies. Yet The Devil Finds Work is a penetrating examination of the place of cinema within the larger American reality.

The Devil Finds Work begins with Baldwin reminiscing about the effect film had on his developing consciousness as a child. He talks about Joan Crawford. For my generation, Crawford is most commonly thought of as the abusive mother in the film based on her step-daughter Christina’s book Mommie Dearest. For Baldwin, she is simply the first face he remembers seeing on the big screen. Yet, almost as soon as he leaves the movie theater, he sees a black woman in a story who, he imagines, looks exactly like Joan Crawford, a testament to the power of the image movies, and, more importantly, the dominant white culture, can project.

Baldwin then goes on to talk about the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans with Randolph Scott. Like the 1992 version with Daniel Day Lewis, it ends with a white woman leaping to her death rather than let herself be “defiled” by an Indian. He echoes my own opinion that John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath is the greatest American film, not necessarily because it’s his favorite movie, but because he believes that Henry Fonda and the Joad family almost manage, through their dramatization of the poverty of the Great Depression, to become black. “In a way,” he writes, “during the 1930s we were all niggers.” He talks about Betty Davis, how her facial features, especially her bulging eyes, reminded him of his own, about the power cinema has to validate the emerging, yet still narcissistic, imagination of a little boy. He goes on an extended meditation about the great 1935 Tale of Two Cites, and the relationship between Sydney Carton and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

If James Baldwin spends his long essay on the American cinema talking almost as much about books as he does about film, then it’s largely because another title for The Devil Finds Work could easily be “On the Failure of American Cinema to Adequately Express the America Reality.” Baldwin is not a true movie lover. He was never the kind of lonely young man who liked nothing better than to sit inside a dark movie theater watching the camera project images onto a screen. On the contrary, for James Baldwin, cinema takes a back seat to literature, the church, and, above all, live theater and music. Although one of the most important cultural event in the young Baldwin’s life was staged by a filmmaker, it wasn’t a movie, but a play, Orson Welles’ all black Macbeth. It’s not only that Welles’ visionary production of Shakespeare’s tragedy gave the young Baldwin his first look at characters from canonical British literature with black faces — “It was the first time I ever really saw black actors at work.” — but the way his fellow audience members helped enrich his own experience of what they were all watching together. A play, Baldwin argues, is a living, constantly evolving medium of expression, a communal experience that allows the audience to share a small piece of history. Film, by contrast, like the images projected on the wall of Plato’s cave, alienates the viewer not only from the reality he’s trying to picture through the pictures, but from his fellow movie goers.

“The tension in the theater is a very different, and very particular tension: this tension between the real and the imaginary is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are recreating each other.”

The Devil Finds Work closes with a long, detailed analysis of Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 biographical drama about Billie Holiday that starred Richard Pryor and Diana Ross, followed by a much shorter, but devastating take down of William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. While Baldwin does concede that Ross and Pryor attempt to convey the reality of Holiday’s life in a way that largely white film studios try to make as difficult as possible, he clearly thinks it’s a bad movie, only worth his time because it allows him to to talk about the failure of Sidney J. Furie — the same director, interestingly enough, who made the great Vietnam War film The Boys in Company C — to capture Holiday’s long confrontation with pain, depravity, poverty, and, most importantly, evil. Film cannot capture the key events in Holiday’s life, drug addiction, childhood sexual abuse, witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, the way words, Holiday’s own autobiography, can. The film Lady Sings the Blues is an extended exercise in avoiding reality. Holiday’s memoir is the real thing.

If Lady Sings the Blues is an inadequate film, The Exorcist is a banal, contemptible film. The most terrifying thing about Friedkin’s movie, Baldwin argues, is the evidence of the enormous gap between the nature of evil and white perception of evil. Lady Sings the Blues may not have been able to dramatize the history of lynching, but at the very least it alluded to the history of lynching. Evil, in William Friedkin’s imagination, centers on the fear of a white mother that her daughter might not grow up to be as successful or well-adjusted as she is. Baldwin is aghast. Is that all white people really fear? As a black man, who understands the devil, not only from his teenage experiences in the church, but from his later experiences with the “dark” side of white America, he fears that The Exorcist is representative of the mindset capable of lynching. It’s as damning an indictment of that wretched movie as I’ve ever seen.

“The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks — many, many others, including white children — can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”

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3 comments

  1. Great essay, your posts always manage to expand on ways to think. To whit, I remember being in my teens and seeing, for the first time ever, a painting in which Jesus was a black man. That moment blew apart an entire false narrative that had been squatting, invisible, in my head space.

    1. Baldwin actually made me think more about the current debates on casting white actors in non-white roles. I’ve never quite been able to understand why, for example, the new Stonewall film caused people to get so angry. But now I realize the damage that could be done be replacing a black transgender character with a “cisgender” white male. I see people who look like me all the time in the movies. But Baldwin reminded me not only that many people don’t, but that he himself might never have become a writer had Orson Welles not put a black Macbeth on stage. It was also, interestingly enough, a play funded by the WPA, Works Progress Administration (a New Deal Agency).

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voodoo_Macbeth

  2. You’ve got me curious so I just ordered Baldwin’s Cross of Redemption from the library.

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