On James Baldwin's Book Of Film Criticism

Feb 22, 2021

Like any criticism, film criticism offers nearly infinite ways to look at its subject, far beyond simple value judgments or hot takes. I was recently reading James Baldwin’s 1976 book The Devil Finds Work, which is largely criticism of his own of films he’d seen throughout his life, and I’d be astonished by how much he packs into the book’s tidy 125 pages if it weren’t for the fact that this is James Baldwin, and so you expect to be astonished.

He comes at his criticism from many different angles, but usually by discussing how the films relate to the reality of the society he sees around him, and very often through the lens of his experience as a Black man in America. I found myself deeply challenged by some of what he says, especially when he excoriates white liberal fantasies like The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner—not because I love those movies, which I don’t, but because some of his criticisms had never crossed my mind, and even though I try to be as aware as I can that I have blind spots, it’s still jarring when you’re confronted with something you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Those are movies I might have expected Baldwin would talk about, but there are others in the book I never would have guessed—The Exorcist, for example, which he relates to his own experience with religion, to the role of the Black church, and to the evils he’s already seen in this very real world. And also a movie I hadn’t seen before, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, from 1937. The movie stars Henry Fonda, who Baldwin says is the only actor from the era with whom he actually identified, and Sylvia Sidney, who he says was, quote, “the only American film actress who reminded me of a colored girl… which is to say the only American film actress who reminded me of reality.” It’s a bleak film, about an ex-con in a society that won’t let him go straight, but having watched it now, it’s easy to see what Baldwin admired about it and its hard truths about America—truths, Baldwin shows in his book, that too many films ignore.

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