Albert Camus said that to create is to live twice and, in the case of James Baldwin, this is especially evident in 2019. Why, do you ask, has Baldwin’s fiction recently been adapted into an Academy Award nominated film by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) while his life has inspired the art exhibition God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin curated by Hilton Als at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City (along with accompanying film screenings). The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House) was a runaway success and it seems that our appetites are barely whetted for more.
Baldwin examined race through a lens unlike any other; he spoke and wrote in an elegant manner that made people actually want to listen (for not all writers are great talkers but he certainly was). If one watches footage of Baldwin being interviewed it’s difficult to look away for he had such charisma and intellectual appeal. In Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary Public Speaking, Fran Lebowitz states that she had never heard anyone talk like Baldwin, that, as a child watching him on The David Susskind Show, she was “completely mesmerized by him” as this was her first exposure to a real intellectual. Some of my favorite archival footage is Baldwin interviewed by Mavis Nicholson in 1987 (Mavis on Four) shortly before his death; his eloquence and wisdom is staggering as he speaks about civil rights, religion (what he referred to, in most cases, as “a hiding place”), racism, moral bankruptcy, his body of work and the state of the world.
I can only guess that his musings on love and sexuality examined in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room are what people are scrambling to understand within their own lives and possibly why If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) has struck such a chord (as it depicts love as only Baldwin could describe it: the “only human possibility”). Baldwin’s bravery can be examined in many different ways: whether it’s through the prism of pure existentialism or as a study of race or sexuality, there is something that everyone can relate to within his work because he wrote about what it is to be human which is, regardless of race or sexual orientation, essentially to be alone. It is only through shared experiences that we, as a people, find solace and through which, as Baldwin said: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
The works on display at David Zwirner give the viewer a visual context into which to place Baldwin’s lifetime oeuvre of not only the “every man” but of the black man who experienced heinous prejudices as well as a universal loneliness. The isolated, downtrodden man is what people identify with because we are all trying to seek refuge from our isolation. With works such as Beauford Delaney’s Dark Rapture (oil on canvas, 1941), Marlene Dumas’ ink, graphite and metallic acrylic rendering on paper (2014) and Richard Avedon’s iconic 1945 portrait, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin provides us with an array of images that define how Baldwin actually looked along with artistic imaginings for Baldwin became what Als called “a kind of visual object himself.”
With the Donald Trump era that we’re currently living within and trying to rebel against, it is wisdom from great artists such as Baldwin who used the written word as a revolutionary tool. With the rise of “Black Lives Matter,” basketball players kneeling and the abhorrent misdistribution of wealth in this country, it’s more relevant than ever to speak out and demand change. Baldwin’s quotation that “It comes as a shock to discover the country, which is your birth place and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you” remains to be true and, because of this, these words are more resonant now than ever.
Larry Wolhandler’s bronze Bust of James Baldwin (1975) on view at the David Zwirner Gallery is a wonderful example of exactly what I’ve been pondering: an image of an artist so glorified that it remains forever in the form of an effigy. This, certainly in Baldwin’s case, is completely deserved but Als’s musings on the piece give us something significant to ponder: “Since his death, Baldwin himself has been ‘used’—claimed, during these troubling times, as a prophet, a prescient thinker. What gets lost in that presumed elevation is his body: as a black queer person one generation removed from the ‘old country’—the Jim Crow South his parents had been raised in—and who, from an early age, loved French culture.” This exhibition offers the opportunity to view Baldwin as the man he was and as the man who looked a certain way: we see not only his incredible legacy but the reality of a man who was, as is the case with all of us, flawed, searching, uncomfortable in his own skin because of societal standards of beauty and, at times, freed from those constraints and depicted as art itself.
With the sold out early February screenings of I Heard it Through the Grapevine (Pat Hartley and Dick Fontaine, 1982) James Baldwin From Another Place (Sedat Pakay, 1973), Take This Hammer (Richard O. Moore, 1963) and Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (Terence Dixon, 1971) (to name a few) at The Metrograph in New York City it is clear that Baldwin’s face wants to be seen and his voice heard on the silver screen. The modern day moviegoer wants what Baldwin described in his collection of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work (1976) as a “surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen” and it’s thrilling to think that the images flickering in the dark (and introduced by Hilton Als) are ones of Baldwin and are, as he described, “something like the heaving and swelling of the sea.”
While the magic of the movies is that they are a certain form of escapism, it’s completely refreshing that we are living in an age where our idol worship falls at the knees of a gay African American scholar whose first memory of movie going was seeing Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). This idealized image of a woman on a moving train seen by Baldwin at the age of “about seven” stayed with him throughout his lifetime; although he had forgotten the plot of the picture, he remembered his awareness that Joan Crawford was “a white lady.” To have images of people completely different than you glamorized and almost fetishized on screen is to understand that what you are surely must be unpretty and unworthy of being celebrated in cinema. This makes the cinematic resurgence of Baldwin all the more satisfying.
The fact that If Beale Street Could Talk is now a major motion picture receiving numerous accolades is not only overdue but is apropos of what’s happening regarding love and sexuality in 2019. It is safer now than ever to discuss our sexuality and to live freely regardless of sexual orientation but it seems that people are more disconnected than ever as well. It’s the love story within If Beale Street Could Talk that is so interesting and the proceeding false imprisonment that mirrors what, sadly, happens all too often outside of the movies. Whenever I think of Baldwin’s novel, I’m reminded of an interview with Toni Morrison where she said that she “read only one book by a man in which I thought the sex was wonderfully described, one that I remember, and that is in Jimmy Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.” To write about sex and love so well one must have (other than superb writing talent) an innate understanding of passion, no matter how flawed or frightening it may seem.
Probably the most important aspect of Baldwin’s legacy is his message that, regardless of background, we all suffer. When asked by Mavis Nicholson in 1987 about Giovanni’s Room, he said that the novel was “not about homosexuality at all” but “about what happens to you if you can’t love anybody—it doesn’t make any difference whether you can’t love a woman or you can’t love a man—if you can’t love anybody you’re dangerous because you have no way of learning humility. You have no way of learning that other people suffer.” Ultimately, we have to realize that more unites us than not, that “what you see in other people is what you see in your mirror” and, sometimes, the only way to realize this is to be confronted with heart-stopping literature such as Going to Meet the Man (1965) that so brilliantly described the horror and violence that is America’s legacy. I thank God for brave artists like James Baldwin for, without his kind, we would be living in much scarier times. At least, for now, his work has provided a respite for the lonely, angry and disenfranchised and, hopefully, will continue to haunt those who need it most desperately.