Program includes new restorations of James Baldwin: From Another Place, Meeting The Man: James Baldwin In Paris, And Baldwin’s N****R
Film Forum is pleased to present the U.S. theatrical premiere of “James Baldwin Abroad,” a program of three films beginning Friday, January 6, 2023, for a one-week run. James Baldwin: the brilliant thinker, writer, and activist whose prescient essays, plays, and novels continue to shine a searing light on American racism 35 years after his death. Born in 1924, in Harlem, Baldwin spent much of his life abroad, and in these three short films – made in Istanbul, Paris, and London – he can be charming, candid, churlish, witty, and acerbic. Whether ruminating on his own “American-ness,” his experience as a child-minister, Black Power, or the nature of love, sexuality, creativity, freedom, and survival – his unsparing opinions are never less than eye-opening, and his onscreen presence never less than riveting. All three films included in this program have been recently restored.
“James Baldwin Abroad” includes: “James Baldwin: From Another Place” – Turkey, 1973:
Set in Istanbul, the film opens with a surprisingly candid scene of Baldwin leisurely awakening in his bedroom. Sedat Pakay, a Turkish filmmaker who studied with Walker Evans, is known for his photographic portraits of famous artists and writers, Baldwin among them. Here in Istanbul, Baldwin seems relatively relaxed, walking among crowds in a public park or on the city’s streets. His focus is personal, even intimate: “The life I live is very different from what people imagine. I love a few men. I love a few women. Love comes in many strange packages; it never comes to you as you think it will. I think the trick is to say yes to life.” He speaks of how difficult it is to concentrate and to write in the United States and says that “American men are paranoiac on the subject of homosexuality.” The film offers a self-reflective James Baldwin, fearlessly examining his most private thoughts and feelings.
“Meeting The Man: James Baldwin In Paris” – UK / France, 1971:
Shot in Paris, a city in which Baldwin lived for nine years after leaving New York — a decision he has described “as a matter of life and death.” The early sequences find Baldwin uncooperative, even hostile to the British director and cameraman, clearly resenting their controlling role. He brings them to the Bastille, whose significance he explains: “They tore down this prison…I am trying to tear a prison down too. When a white man tears down a prison, he is trying to liberate himself. When I tear down a prison, I am simply another savage. What you don’t understand is that you for me are my prison guard, you are my warden. I am battling you, not you Terry, but you the English, you the French.”
“An invaluable and pertinent insight into the man’s disarming, enrapturing worldview, and a testament to his resilience, unparalleled intellect, and unreserved pride in the face of all the world had to throw at him.” – Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller, Film Daze.
“Baldwin’s N****R” – UK, 1968: Called “the Godfather of Black British filmmaking,” documentarian Horace Ové films Baldwin at the top of his game, in good spirits, joining his friend, comedian/activist Dick Gregory, at the West Indian Student Centre in London. Baldwin speaks movingly of the historical antecedents of his life and that of other Black Americans: “My entry into America is a bill of sale. I became Baldwin’s n****r. I was formed in a certain crucible. My frame of reference is George Washington and John Wayne.” Speaking of slavery’s reality he avers: “I discover those songs darkies sang were not just the innocent expressions of primitive people, but extremely subtle, difficult, dangerous, and tragic expressions of what it felt like to be in chains.”
It was a great joy for me to receive screeners for this trio of films, as I have a great love for Baldwin and his life’s work. When I visited Paris in 2017, I made sure to visit Café de Flore, where I had read that Baldwin had spent much time writing.
He noted that he was born in a certain time, with a certain skin in a certain place. “None of you know who this dark stranger is. You think I’m an exotic survivor.” In the films, Baldwin explains that when he first went abroad, he sold his typewriter and clothes and left New York with little or no money. He said in Turkey he was a novelty, because natives had never seen a Black man.
He added that he left the United States in 1948 for a variety of reasons. “I left because I knew I would be murdered there. I could not have hoped to live if I stayed. Folks are still leaving for the same reason. What do they expect from us, the darker brother? I would not be a white American for all the tea in China and all the oil in Texas. Couldn’t live with all those lies.”
Within the three films, Baldwin goes from being his affable, sly-smiling self to an agitated celebrity to downright snarly, dealing with the videographers and sometimes the crowds that assemble and follow behind him.
“James Baldwin Abroad” is presented with support from The Richard Brick, Geri Ashur, and Sara Bershtel Fund for Social Justice Documentaries, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Fund, and the Ada Katz Fund for Literature in Film.
Special thanks to Jake Perlin (The Film Desk/Cinema Conservancy), Andrew Adair (Cinema Conservancy), Ashley Clark (The Criterion Collection), and Emily Woodburne (Janus Films).
For more schedule information, visit filmforum.org.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].