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  • "Enough Force to Shatter the Tale to Fragments"Ethics and Textual Analysis in James Baldwin's Film Theory
Abstract

This essay argues that James Baldwin's writings on film exemplify the broader project that he undertakes in his midcareer nonfiction: to enlist an ethics of intersubjective love in the dismantling of racial categories. Applying ethical concepts like the "shattering" effect of the self's encounter with the other to the analysis of classical Hollywood films, Baldwin develops an original and coherent hermeneutic approach, at once highly literary and engaged with academic film theory's foundational concerns (the ontological status of the image, spectatorship, ideological critique, and historiography). Baldwin's approach, the essay argues, conceives of the film as an unstable, fragmented textual structure and of actors and viewers as historically situated subjects whose "flesh-and-blood" existence the film puts at stake.

In his book-length, autobiographical essay on moviegoing, The Devil Finds Work (1976), James Baldwin lingers over "a close-up of Sidney Poitier's face … in The Defiant Ones," commenting on the intense "pride and anguish" that this shot expresses.1 This reading of Poitier's close-up exemplifies the central themes and hermeneutic approaches of Baldwin's film theory. Baldwin privileges the visual register of film, assuming that the image holds "the key to what a movie is actually involved in saying."2 Specifically, he focuses on the filmed image of the face, as brought near to the viewer by the close-up. These shots, Baldwin holds, have the power viscerally to manifest ethical "truths" (D, 555) that American narrative films otherwise tend to evade. Seizing upon the "shattering" (D, 522) potential of these often marginal moments, Baldwin establishes an oblique analytical perspective, from which he can reveal a film text's internal contradictions.

Consisting of The Devil Finds Work and a pair of review essays on all-black-cast Hollywood musicals, Baldwin's nonfiction writing on film examines an eclectic group of (mostly American) films from the early 1930s through the mid-1970s. Baldwin's film writings move fluidly between considerations of screenwriting, cinematography, acting, audiences, and reception and engage in detailed, sustained textual analyses of individual films. Vigorously critiquing the films' representations of African American characters and interracial relationships, these analyses participate in Baldwin's larger project in his midcareer nonfiction writing, that of deconstructing the "mythic" consciousness that sustains American racial categories and hierarchies.

As he does in related pieces like The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1976), and his essay in the photo-text Nothing Personal (1964), Baldwin mounts in his film writings an ethical critique of racial "myth." Rooted in a radical turn to intersubjective love, this critique evokes, in its rhetoric and major moves, existential philosophy and psychoanalysis. Baldwin argues throughout these major nonfiction writings that the consciousness of white America is controlled by a [End Page 385] "myth" or a "legend," which he glosses with a variety of slightly different, though always interconnected, terms: He speaks of a myth of "white supremacy," a myth of "white purity," and a broader myth of historical innocence.3 In all of its guises, this mythos acts as a social imaginary, enabling the putatively white individual to construct a "provisional," fantasy self, which, in turn enables him or her socially and politically to oppress African Americans (without any sense of moral culpability).4 These myths and the "provisional" selves that they sanction have proven so historically intractable because they provide a protective covering, enabling the individual not to see him- or herself in a state of existential nakedness. For Baldwin, this nakedness reveals the various abject conditions of mortality, sexual hunger, dispossession, and historical guilt or shame that universally constitute "real" selfhood (D, 501).

Baldwin thus represents the encounter with the "real" self as a traumatic shattering of subjective defenses, a fall into an abyss that makes possible—even as it can be caused by—the unguarded encounter with the other. This fall is necessary for true intersubjective communion: "To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live" (D, 571). For Baldwin, the medium of film is crucial in so far as it can dramatize the tensions between mythic and real consciousness, providing glimpses of or enacting for the viewer the traumatic, abyssal encounter between selves.

Just as African American music, religious worship, and literature provide traditions of cultural resistance to mythic consciousness in Baldwin's essays, so do African American actors act as guardians of the ethical "real" in his view of the American cinema. Poitier's "shattering" close-up in The Defiant Ones exemplifies the ways in which a group of accomplished black screen performers, working within and against a hostile system of production, have managed to disrupt the mythic surfaces of film texts. African American performers have managed, Baldwin writes, "to give … indelible moments, created, miraculously beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale to fragments" (D, 554).

These disruptions are legible as such, first to African American viewers, whose responses to the films become formative moments in the historical construction of their meanings. While seeking to preserve this reception history—which includes the crucial autobiographical dimension of Baldwin's own work—Baldwin builds more [End Page 386] extensive, hermeneutically dense analyses of individual films, using tropes of explosion and breakage to represent the ethical stakes of filmic representation. For Baldwin, film-textual analysis is a process of activating latent contradictions, forcing films as expressions of ethical consciousness to reveal or "confes[s]" their awareness of the "real," even as they tend toward the mythic (D, 526).

In order to register the theoretical force of Baldwin's writings on film, it is necessary to interpret them in the larger context of the recurrent meditations on ethics he undertakes in his highly autobiographical midcareer nonfiction writings. Thus, this essay takes an interdisciplinary approach: It engages with the unique rhetorical texture and narrative density of Baldwin's writing, its fundamental literariness, while at the same time seeking to situate his concepts of film history and interpretation within broader trajectories of academic film theory. Working between African American literary studies and film studies, the essay focuses particularly on questions pertinent to the latter discipline, such as textual criticism, the black images approach, and the embodied viewer. By the same token, the conceptual synthesis offered here highlights crucial themes and motifs running throughout Baldwin's ethical thought that might otherwise appear less significant, while suggesting some ways in which visual culture in general and cinema in particular might be seen as central to Baldwin's writing at large.5

The crucial close-up of Poitier from The Defiant Ones (United Artists, 1958) appears early in the film, during an argument between Poitier's Noah Cullen and Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis), the white, fellow escaped convict to whom Noah is chained at the wrist. Rejecting Joker's cynical advice that he needs to accept his marginal position within the social order of Jim Crow, Noah bitterly but also lovingly recalls his wife's comparable words; the close-up lasts for the duration of his speech. When Noah would become angry at his unfair treatment as a sharecropper and, later, as a prisoner, his wife, "[S]he say, be nice. Be nice" (quoted in D, 555). Baldwin suggests that the appearance of Poitier's face, even more than the verbal content of his speech, evokes an emotional depth and complexity ("pride and anguish"), rooted in the character's experiences as an African American man trying to support his family under exploitative conditions. The depth and complexity within the image become legible for "[b]lack spectators," who, Baldwin stipulates, "supply the sub-text" for such a moment "out of their own lives." Baldwin here bears witness for the group of viewers whose experiences single out for special scrutiny the specifically visual aspect of this moment in the film. While Baldwin claims not to know how "the [End Page 387] multitudes who think of themselves as white" might respond to this image, he tacitly defines self-conscious whiteness—the embrace of the authority, prestige, and moral justification that this term is supposed to signify—as a psychic condition of denial. To think of themselves as white requires these viewers to "hold [Poitier's dramatic] anguish far outside themselves," refusing the kind of traumatizing self-examination that such an image might provoke (D, 555).

Baldwin uses tropes of violent impact and energy transfer to describe the effect of these "indelible moments" on the consciousnesses of particular viewers and on the film itself, which he represents as a physical structure susceptible to being fractured from within. While Poitier's expression "strikes deep," certain moments in Pearl Bailey's performance in Carmen Jones (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954) seem almost to "explode" the film ("C," 36). Baldwin uses similar terms to account for the peculiar segregated casting strategy of the film Tales of Manhattan (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1942): the pathos and affective "truth" that Ethel Waters is able to convey with her face is so potentially shattering that she is barred from sharing the frame with white actors like Ginger Rogers (D, 558). "The face of Ginger Rogers," Baldwin writes, "is something to be placed in a dish and eaten with a spoon…. If the face of Ethel Waters were placed in the same frame, the face of Little Eva (that is, Rogers) would simply melt: to prevent this, the black performer has been sealed off into a vacuum" (D, 554).6 While Baldwin's description raises some questions about the basis for his judgment of the actresses' respective artificiality and authenticity, the passage characteristically emphasizes the cinematic visage and draws upon his ethical language of the mythic and the real.7

In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin argues that narrative film threatens to lock the viewer into an alienating, mirror relation with one or more fantasy selves, selves that tend to be falsely authoritative for white viewers and dehumanizing for African American viewers. Yet certain filmed facial expressions, like those of Bailey and Poitier, have the potential energy necessary to shatter this mirror—for the viewer who is able to activate that energy. Baldwin illustrates that such "indelible moments" make legible a latent, subtextual dimension of meaning in the film. The film's "subtext" is a layer of ideas that forms when the filmmakers, having recognized the pressing historical and ethical questions intrinsic to their subject matter, refuse to "confront" them, using the mechanisms of plot and spectacle to conceal or disguise them (D, 570).8 Given the epistemological primacy of the "real," a [End Page 388] film's representational strategies necessarily reveal the work that the film must perform to evade it, the film's apparent surface coherence notwithstanding. Indeed, through critical analysis, the subtext can be shown even to determine the film's overt textual structure.

In his early review essay on Carmen Jones, Baldwin focuses on the screen presence of Bailey, who plays Frankie, the kept woman who encourages Carmen to join her in Husky Miller's entourage.9 Describing Bailey's manner as "forthright and wry, and with the authoritative wring of authenticity," Baldwin finds isolated moments of explosive potential in her performance, disruptive flashes of what Béla Balázs would call physiognomic "polyphony": "For a second at a time she escapes [Carmen Jones's] deadly inertia and in Miss Bailey one catches glimpses of the imagination which might have exploded this movie into something worth seeing" ("C," 36).10 Expanding on this characteristic play of energy tropes, Baldwin claims that Bailey constructs a performance through these moments that works against her scripted character, creating a kind of Brechtian alienation effect. He hears "murderously amused disdain" in Bailey's delivery of her lines, whereby she seems to distance herself from those lines, "commenting on the film." While Baldwin's rhetoric perhaps overstates the degree to which Bailey's performance goes against the film's aesthetic grain, she does at times convey a marked distance from her role, using facial expressions and subtle hand gestures to make the character, in turn, seem out of place (see figure 1). In his reading of the film, Baldwin seeks to give specific content to this vague sense of not belonging, to summarize verbally the actress's apparent commentary.

Baldwin's interpretation of Carmen Jones thus performs an "explo[sion]" of the film "into something worth seeing," revealing Bailey herself to be a disruptive presence that the film must labor to contain. Examining the mise-en-scène and plot of the film, Baldwin deduces that the filmmakers have found it "amusing to parallel Bizet's amoral Gypsy with a present-day, lower-class Negro woman" ("C," 36). For the white filmmakers to recognize the "amusing" potential of this pairing of contemporary American setting and European, operatic atmosphere is to recognize, at the same time, that the project risks evoking unsettling associations for the white viewer: "It is a good deal less amusing to parallel the Bizet violence with the violence of the Negro ghetto" ("C," 36). The film manifestly is distorted by the work necessary to create the first parallel without, in turn, letting onto the tragic dimensions of impoverished, segregated urban life. [End Page 389]

Figure 1. Pearl Bailey as Frankie in Carmen Jones (Twentieth-Century Fox, 1954).
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Figure 1.

Pearl Bailey as Frankie in Carmen Jones (Twentieth-Century Fox, 1954).

Baldwin discerns this transformative strategy in the costuming, speech, and actions of Dorothy Dandridge's Carmen character, contrasting her "manufactured" sexiness with Bailey's "personality." Bailey's very proximity to Dandridge in the frame becomes dangerous, threatening to break apart the carefully constructed tissue of amusement that pretends to represent "a present-day, lower-class Negro woman" without evoking the complexities and traumas of this figure's socio-historical experience. Bailey's "personality" evokes for Baldwin these complexities and traumas. Carmen Jones, Baldwin argues, is at pains constantly to manage this dangerous proximity, which its narrative of course demands, in order to keep intact the kind of smooth surface of entertainment spectacle that might appeal to white audiences. Thus, Baldwin arrives at the striking dialectical claim that "Carmen Jones is controlled by another movie which Hollywood was studiously not making" ("C," 36).

Although Baldwin generally prefers physical and structural tropes to writing tropes, his dialectical approach to film interpretation recalls the method of so-called textual analysis practiced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by film scholars like Raymond Bellour, Stephen Heath, and critics associated with the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma. The metaphor of film as text—and, by extension, the metaphor of reading film—locates in the visual medium of cinema the same kind of figural density and indeterminacy that, in poststructuralist literary theory, characterizes [End Page 390] writing. Baldwin clearly brings this sort of writerly sensibility to his film criticism: It is visible both in the rhetorical density of his own prose and in his underlying assumption that the filmic structure is unstable. Moreover, by using the "indelible moment" to initiate an extended reading of a film's textual system, Baldwin demonstrates an approach that is comparable to the kinds of Althusserian symptomatic reading practiced by these scholars and professional critics.11

As Judith Mayne explains in her excellent summary of the major currents in 1970s film theory, symptomatic reading is an approach "attentive not only to the apparent dominant structures of a text but always and especially to what is omitted, repressed, or otherwise marginalized."12 Hence, textualist critics applied "the insights of psychoanalysis" to the "study of ideology," examining individual films—particularly classical Hollywood films—as manifestations of the cinematic institution.13 While these critics seek to locate the most typical ideological attributes of the cinematic institution in the smallest structures of individual films, their readings routinely point out the ways in which even apparently typical films fail to convey a seamless ideological message, as their own textual structures interfere with such transparent communication.14

The textual analyses developed by the Cahiers du cinéma critics focus on how classical Hollywood films help to reproduce "the prevailing ideology"—the ideology of industrial capitalism—by constructing images of "reality" that enshrine the existing social order as inevitable and unchangeable. In a definitive statement of this textualist method, Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni identify a significant category of Hollywood films "which seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner." The ambiguity arises once the critic begins to look closely at the "cinematic framework"—or what I have called, after Christian Metz, the textual system—and detects there a double movement, whereby the film simultaneously represents the "prevailing ideology" and "throw[s] up obstacles in the way of the ideology," making that representation finally incoherent or contradictory. "An internal criticism is taking place," Comolli and Narboni write, "which cracks the film apart at the seams. If one reads the film obliquely, looking for symptoms, if one looks beyond its apparent formal coherence, one can see that it is riddled with cracks: it is splitting under an internal tension[.]"15 Although Baldwin largely eschews the technical terminology of psychoanalysis and cultural materialism, his textual analyses of films like The Defiant Ones, Carmen Jones, Lady [End Page 391] Sings the Blues (Paramount, 1972), and The Exorcist (Warner Bros., 1973) echo Comolli and Narboni's rhetoric of cracking and splitting, their focus on the revealing marginal detail (the symptom), and their dialectical approach to reading the film text.

In his discussion of The Defiant Ones, Baldwin approaches the film "obliquely," zeroing in on an apparently prosaic moment late in the film, which occurs when the two fugitives, having begun to fight with one another, are accosted by a young white boy carrying a rifle. The men knock the boy, Billy (Kevin Coughlin), to the ground, rendering him unconscious. Insisting that they try to revive him, Noah picks up the boy. As Billy begins to regain consciousness, the film uses a single, low-angle close-up, to represents Noah's face from "the boy's point of view and as he sees it: black, unreadable, not quite in focus" (D, 526). This image (figure 2), Baldwin argues, "suggests the truth [The Defiant Ones] can neither face nor articulate" (D, 525). The shot verges on "confession" because the "way the boy sees the black face is exactly the way the man [Joker] sees it"—and, by extension, is exactly how the film sees it. In this hovering, menacing yet "beautiful" face, the film opens a window onto its ethical subtext (D, 526).

In examining how the film constructs Joker's character, Baldwin illustrates that the revelation of the boy's point of view complicates and disrupts the storyline and the protagonists' extensive conversations, in which they attempt to forge some kind of means of working together to escape. Joker is trapped, Baldwin argues, in a state of immature, adolescent terror in his relationship to the world, due to his attachment to the social myths of white masculinity. In his naïve sense of justification and prestige, Joker could in no way survive or even fathom the kind of treatment by society that Noah is shown to endure daily. Building on this tension between the isolated image and the broad strokes of the narrative, Baldwin reveals an internal criticism at work in the film. Even as the film attempts finally to contain Noah's character within mythic categories, Poitier's very physical bearing presents contradictory evidence, intimating that this character has transcended the resentful, ethical adolescence in which Joker remains trapped.

Poitier's face "smashes [the film] to pieces," as Baldwin puts it, because it "conveys so vividly [what] Noah Cullen knows": that he has nothing to fear from this "dimwitted poor white child," whose hatred is rooted strictly in his barely repressed awareness of his own "mediocrity" (D, 525). This partial disclosure notwithstanding, the film would have the viewer believe that Noah could be provoked to murderous violence by the racial epithets that Joker hurls at him. Over the course [End Page 392] of the narrative, The Defiant Ones relies increasingly on the self-serving "premise" that, Baldwin argues, the film itself reveals to be false: the notion that, in the end, the two men (as "metaphor[ic]" representatives of their respective racial groups) "have the same reason to hate" one another—some sort of irrational fear and inability to communicate—and thus the same moral lessons to learn (D, 524).16

Figure 2. Noah Cullen's (Sidney Poitier) face, as seen from Billy's perspective in The Defiant Ones (United Artists, 1958).
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Figure 2.

Noah Cullen's (Sidney Poitier) face, as seen from Billy's perspective in The Defiant Ones (United Artists, 1958).

For Baldwin, as for Comolli and Narboni, the critic's task is to bring the film's internal criticism into view, using it as a guide for his or her own reading: According to this approach, the means to the critique of the film's prevailing ideology lies within the film's own textual system. In this manner, Baldwin avoids the pitfalls of the negative and positive images approach that has dominated the field of critical race studies in American film since its inception in the early 70s. Briefly stated, this approach criticizes the cinematic institution for excluding African Americans from the screen or, when representing them at all, for relegating them to marginal and stereotyped positions. Scholars who pioneered this approach, like Donald Bogle, Daniel Leab, and Thomas Cripps, grouped together large numbers of so-called black images [End Page 393] (meaning, principally, characters) from multiple films, illustrating how they represent particular cultural stereotypes or broad historical trends in cinematic representation.17 Such broad groupings make it possible for scholars to judge certain images as typical (negative) and others as atypical (positive). Ignoring the multiple visual, auditory, and discursive registers in which individual film characters are enmeshed and in which filmic ideologies are articulated, these scholars necessarily flatten out the intratextual tensions visible within individual films and limit their treatments of them to certain codified formations of character and setting (images). Moreover, the images approach establishes an external, idealistic standpoint for making critical judgments, seeing character stereotypes as obviously and transparently legible manifestations of ideology.

In her discussion of Baldwin's writing on film spectatorship, Jane Gaines has shown that the images approach rests upon a "politics of mirroring," a critique that "wants to see positive images [of African Americans] and asks why screen images are unlike real people." As Gaines points out, this critique relies on the untenable assumption that film can ever represent a social group in a way that is both accurate and generally binding.18 Indeed, it presupposes that representative concepts of authentic African American personhood could be defined before the fact and without reference to any particular context or set of themes such as might be developed in a fictional narrative like a film. For Baldwin, who absolutely rejects categorical representations of group "identit[ies]," such an approach to film would be useless; he conceives of film characters—in the same manner as he would historically existing subjects—as singular entities, defined by the particular social and ethical "dilemma[s]" in which they are developed (D, 537, 479). Thus Baldwin is able to critique individual films on their own terms, remaining mindful of the history of American cinematic racism, while, at the same time, revealing the evasions, deceptions, and partial "confessions" of guilt that underlie this history. While it has gone largely uncommented in recent discussions of his film writing, Baldwin's textualism is perhaps the most interesting and vital aspect of his criticism, representing an important precedent for an otherwise neglected approach in critical race studies in American film.19

Following Mayne's discussion of The Devil Finds Work in her definitive Cinema and Spectatorship (1993), film scholars have expressed a renewed interest in Baldwin's film writing, particularly in his discussion of African American spectatorial practices.20 Mayne argues that Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work anticipates the contemporary [End Page 394] turn to the "social audience" in film studies.21 Highlighting Baldwin's description of the outrage expressed by a "Harlem audience" at the ending of The Defiant Ones, Mayne points out that Baldwin rejects psychoanalytic film theory's discourse of the abstract viewing "subject," insisting upon the role of the embodied "viewer" in creating meaning in the cinema. According to Baldwin, whereas "[l]iberal white audiences applauded" when Noah "jumped off of the train," the African American audience with whom he saw the film in Harlem "yelled, Get back on the train you fool!," thus rejecting the film's compromised vision of interracial solidarity—a vision that forces Noah's character to conform to the terms of mythic white historical innocence (D, 525).22 While arguing broadly for the turn to the social audience, Mayne is critical of what she sees as the over-literalism and false empiricism of contemporary film-studies accounts of the "social audience." These accounts, she argues, overstate the scholar's access to the experiences of such audiences and needlessly forfeit the hermeneutic power of psychoanalytic, textualist criticism. Baldwin's own attempt to mediate the perspectives of textual critic and embodied viewer thus addresses some of the methodological concerns that Mayne and, in a slightly different vein, Miriam Hansen have raised. In a parallel discussion of the blind spots in historical theories of spectatorship, Hansen stresses that it is always necessary for the critic to establish some "hermeneutic constellation in which a historical spectator makes sense of what he or she perceives": In order to generalize about or compare the responses of viewers and audiences, the critic requires some textual framework and some understanding of the film's possible modes of address to an imagined "spectator."23

For Hansen, the term that mediates between the abstract "subject" (an "effect" of filmic address) and the concrete "viewer" (the "empirical moviegoer" or "member of a social audience") is "public sphere": Hansen argues that the cinema is a public sphere that enables audiences to produce particular discursive "formations"—texts of reception—which the scholar may then interpret. The cinematic public sphere is "defined" but not totally scripted "by particular relations of representation and reception" that are "specific to the institution of cinema"; at the same time, the "subjects" who enter the cinematic public sphere remain immersed in "other formations of public life," including "social determinations" like "class and race, gender and sexual orientation."24

For Baldwin, ethical categories act as the crucial mediating concepts between the individual viewer (the member of the social audience) [End Page 395] and the abstract subject of filmic address. The term "flesh-and-blood person" frequently is used in film studies to mark the turn to the empirical viewer, away from the abstract, disembodied "spectator." Implicitly linked in Baldwin's writing to the activity of moviegoing, the term "flesh and blood" is, for him, primarily an ethical category (D, 501). Baldwin regularly uses the phrase "flesh and blood" to refer to the individual's existential condition of being a radically singular entity and, at the same time, an entity that is unavoidably linked to all social others—through shared history, mutual experiences of abjection, physical desire, or the obligations of love. Thus, the individual viewer experiences the film as a person of "flesh and blood" in so far as he or she remains cognizant of his or her simultaneous singularity and obligations to the other—and at a certain immediate, visceral level of awareness. According to Baldwin's theory of the classical Hollywood cinema's modes of narrative and spectator address, it is precisely this flesh-and-blood disposition that films threaten, encouraging the viewer to identify with idealized or degraded images of the isolated ego, as respectively defined through racial categories.

While Baldwin's work stresses that the film scholar must consider the perspective of the embodied, socially grounded individual who enters the theater, "flesh-and-blood" personhood is not a given within his theoretical understanding of film viewers: Only under certain circumstances do films appeal to this dimension of the individual's existence. Further, the individual viewer must seek willfully to keep that dimension active in his or her experience of the film. In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin implicitly theorizes a mode of spectatorship that preserves the individual viewer's "flesh-and-blood" disposition, making him or her capable of responding, for example, to Poitier's performance in this way. Interestingly, Baldwin constructs this theory through an extended, multifaceted comparison of film and theatrical spectatorship. "The distance between oneself—the audience—and a screen performer is," Baldwin claims, "an absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as an intimacy" (D, 500). In contrast, the stage actor, by virtue of his or her physical proximity to the audience, is able to elicit an embodied response from its members that foregrounds the definitive, ethical bond between self and other: "One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one's flesh and blood: in the theater we are recreating each other" (D, 501). In making this invidious comparison between media, Baldwin stresses that the stage play, being essentially new with each performance, presents the spectator with an openness and contingency that movies, as mechanically reproduced [End Page 396] artifacts, cannot replicate. In this regard, the theatrical actor, Baldwin suggests, also "respond[s]" to the audience. Recalling the first stage production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, he writes, "In the theater, a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors: flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood—as we say, testifying" (D, 501).25

Given the ways in which Baldwin indicts mainstream American film for promoting egotism and intersubjective distance, the aesthetic ideal of the theater would seem to be totally out of the cinema's reach. Yet, in bearing critical witness to such "indelible moments," Baldwin asserts that certain African American film actors historically have managed to approximate this sort of flesh-and-blood impact upon their audiences. Film actors "approximate" this impact because of their absolute physical separation from the audience and because the medium allows for only a one-way linkage between participants; the film actor cannot "respond." Yet, when Baldwin's film spectator recognizes the truthful testimony of the film image, the "current" that "flow[s] back and forth between the audience and [stage] actors" is activated—or finds work—in an analogous way; the film image somehow responds, leaving a mark.

In the facial close-ups that Baldwin describes as "indelible moments," the film actor appears to return the viewer's gaze, thus expressing the uncanny sense that the character on screen remains a subject existentially distinct from him or her, one with whom the viewer can imagine a relationship of mutual response, or re-creation. Such shots do not invite the viewer to misrecognize him- or herself in the character, through the imaginary mechanism of identification. By the same token, these shots resist the viewer's attempt to reduce the characters to entities emanating from the viewer's fantasies. In addition to expressing subtleties of experience that the films' larger strategies of characterization fail to register, these shots enact for Baldwin the basic conditions of intersubjective communion: the shattering, abyssal encounter of the individual with the other and thus with him- or herself.

In according this expressive force and complexity to the isolated image, especially the image of the face, Baldwin's approach to the moving image recalls the physiognomic film theory of Béla Balázs. A Hungarian intellectual who studied in Berlin with Georg Simmel and in Paris with Henri Bergson, Balázs wrote in multiple genres but is best known for his film-theoretical texts of the 1920s and 30s.26 Combining surrealist poetics and leftist politics, these texts argue that the novelty [End Page 397] of silent film lies in the camera's ability to restore expressive power to the face (and to the gesturing body), a power missing from the culture of print. Like Baldwin, Balázs posits a physiognomic linkage between the exterior of the face and thoughts, affects, and other complex interior states: "What appears on the face and in facial expression is a spiritual experience which is rendered immediately visible without the intermediary of words."27

More specifically, Balázs emphasizes facial close-ups, attributing to these shots an intensity and impact that is disproportionate to their duration and placement within the larger montage structure of the film. Encountering the facial close-up, the viewer is "left alone with this one face to the exclusion of the rest of the world."28 Balázs's emphasis on the isolated figure as well as his assertion that the individual shot appears to dislodge itself from the rest of the film echoes Baldwin's poetic, verbal translations of "shattering" moments. Moreover, Baldwin identifies as the stakes of the encounter with the filmed face the same aesthetic and experiential quality: a sense of proximity or intimacy that does not finally deny the distinctive singularity of the subjects who face one another, making the reciprocity of the gaze possible.29

If certain filmed images may encourage mutual "corroboration" between viewers and the figures on screen, establishing each as a "person of flesh and blood," then to what exactly does the film actor who appears in these images "testify"? To what does he or she bear witness? Does this testimony have a particular ethical content that can be articulated explicitly by the critic? Or, do these images only serve as points of departure for the critique of ideology as developed in textualist criticism? What is the ethical significance of identification, in so far as it—and not flesh-and-blood "corroboration"—is the dominant mode of viewer-character relations that American film historically has encouraged? What are the implications for the practice of film criticism and historiography of Baldwin's evident attempt to record (or even restore) "indelible moments" within cultural memory—to rescue them from a kind of oblivion?

Film enters into Baldwin's ethical thought, in the first place, as a kind of mythic mirror. The "moviegoer is exposed," Baldwin argues, to "an irreducible danger," that of "surrendering to the corroboration of [his or her] fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen" (D, 500). Note his pejorative use of the term "corroboration" when that mechanism supports "fantasies": According to Baldwin, films threaten to prop up the individual's provisional, fantasy self, encouraging his or her refusal of self-understanding and spiritual apathy, while discouraging [End Page 398] the encounter with the other and the real self. Films pose this "danger" because they promote a falsely intimate relationship between the viewer and the human image on screen, even though the medium of film necessarily imposes an absolute distance between the two. More precisely, in Hollywood films made during the roughly fifty-year span that Baldwin discusses, the film star, who fosters this false sense of intimacy, acts as an "escape personality" (D, 500), or ego-ideal for the viewer: The film encourages the viewer to identify with a fantasy image of him- or herself.

Baldwin's discourse of film-as-mirror echoes André Bazin's famous essay "Theater and Cinema," which emphasizes the "soul and being of the flesh-and-blood actor" in the former medium and the "artificial proximity" of the actor in the latter.30 Like Baldwin, Bazin argues that the medium of film transforms the characters on screen into "objects of identification," while the physical "presence" of the stage actor keeps the theatrical character from becoming subject to the audience member's speculations. The characters on stage remain "objects of mental opposition," never "transpose[d]" into the spectator's "imaginary world."31 Bazin further seems to anticipate Baldwin's critique of the mechanism of cinematic identification, which confuses proximity and distance. Films provide "the man in the dark movie house" with the "intoxication of illusory intimacy" with screen "hero[es]."32

Grounded in his larger, ethical critique of racial myth, Baldwin's film theory resolutely rejects identification. For Baldwin, filmic identification traps the viewer in the realm of fantasy because the figures it offers as ego-ideals do not represent singular, "real" individuals but abstract embodiments of cultural values. The filmic "escape personality" embodies those traits affirmed by dominant myths, such as power, purity, and moral righteousness; he or she is a self founded upon the transient, illusory supports of wealth and prestige. The film star may appear to be a unique individual: Baldwin does point out that star performers never submerge their personalities in fictional roles but rather simply exist as themselves in front of the camera. However, by appearing as themselves, stars in fact represent generalized images of status, self-possession, or cultural belonging; to use Baldwin's ethical terminology, stars exemplify myth-grounded "provisional" selves, or "identities." It is crucial to recall that, for Baldwin, "identity" refers not to a singularity but to a general category: a tool of social definition that the individual seeks out of fear of him- or herself and as a means of securing him- or herself against the encounter with the stranger.33 The film star represents an "identity" in the sense that someone like [End Page 399] Humphrey Bogart, whom Baldwin uses as an example, embodies white masculinity, with all of the imaginary purity, prestige, and innocence associated with those categories in American culture.34

For Baldwin, race is the most important set of social definitions that the American cinema serves to reinforce, setting the stakes very high, if contrastingly, for black and white viewers alike. The American cinema presupposes that "no one makes his escape personality black" (D, 500). African American viewers risk accepting the negative "identity" positions afforded by the movies: understanding themselves as the antithesis of the social ego-ideal or seeing themselves in the grotesque, degraded images fashioned by actors like Lincoln Perry (a.k.a. Stepin Fetchit), Willie Best, and Mantan Moreland. Stressing his own refusal of the latter identity positions, Baldwin forcefully indicts these three actors who made frequent appearances on the movie screens of his youth as alternately lazy and terrified buffoons: These actors, Baldwin knew then, "lied" about the social world of African Americans (D, 492). White viewers, by the same token, risk becoming more deeply ensnared in the myth of whiteness, this imaginary position of superiority always being a "trap" or "prison" in Baldwin's writing.35 Note that Baldwin uses the phrase "the trap of color" in reference both to the consciousness of people "who think of themselves as white," with all of the prestige and justification that notion entails, and to his own experiences as the victim of racism.36

Baldwin's critique of identification underscores his distance from the black images approach to American film. While focusing on a group of screen performers who repeatedly play stereotyped, abject roles, Baldwin uses the history of African American exclusion from and marginalization on the screen to mount a universal ethical critique of the cinema's construction of subjectivity and of its standards of social value. Baldwin's critique is not a demand for African American inclusion or approval according to the Hollywood cinema's existing norms but a radical challenge to those norms from the perspective of the excluded/marginalized group (comprised both of African American actors and audience members), whose ethical perspective, paradoxically, is the most searching and authoritative. Rooted in this claim of black social and cultural authority, Baldwin's film criticism reflects what is perhaps the defining assumption of Baldwin's ethical thought: While racial myth constitutes social hierarchy, it entraps the "perpetrators" of inequality and oppression in a state of spiritual "despair" or "sorrow."37

Calling this sorrow "ours," Baldwin makes the radical ethical move of assuming responsibility for the consciousness and actions of others [End Page 400] who have victimized him. For Baldwin, this move is a practical necessity: The liberation of African Americans will only become possible once white people begin to "see themselves as they are" and thus "cease fleeing from reality."38 Further, Baldwin dramatically enacts what he sees as the universal ethical obligation to refuse apathy and cynicism—what the early Christian church identified as the "cardinal sin" of acedia—and in so doing to affirm the shared "flesh and blood" of all individuals.39 As is typical of Baldwin's nonfiction writing, his film criticism has a prophetic dimension. He exhorts members of the dominant group to liberate themselves from myth and acedia by confronting the abyss of the real, prophetically warning against the future consequences of the failure to take this step.

Without in any way minimizing the traps of despair and resentment that threaten the victims, Baldwin portrays the perpetrators, who shape the society's material reality, as existing in a much more perilous spiritual state, compelled to repeat past crimes, locked in a dysfunctional present, and apparently doomed to self-destruction. As an extension of his ethical theory, Baldwin's approach to film criticism is preoccupied with this perilous state, with the complex temporality it makes visible and with the opportunities for free action that it presents. He investigates how film might become a medium that promotes liberated "function[ing] in the present," which requires the individual, regardless of race, to be able to "assess" and "to use" the past.40 Thus, the critic's task is to make history available to memory and to interpretation, even when confronting a medium like film, which, in its attachment to myth, would seem only to promote what Baldwin calls despair and sorrow.

Baldwin begins writing film criticism at a perilous moment of change in the history the Hollywood cinema's representation of African Americans. Baldwin's earliest nonfictional discussions of movies are a pair of review essays on Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess (MGM, 1959), all-black-cast, Technicolor musicals directed by the white, Austrian-émigré director Otto Preminger. For Baldwin, Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess represent a new cinematic phenomenon: the African American star vehicle. Instead of restricting African American actors to the minor and overtly demeaning roles once played by Best or Moreland, these films open the once exclusively white position of star to actors like Dandridge, Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Moreover, they set the stage for Poitier's later work in social-problem films like The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Columbia Pictures, 1967), which become a crucial cinematic corpus for Baldwin [End Page 401] in The Devil Finds Work. Indeed, the mainstream, white media hailed Preminger's musicals as progressive milestones because of their construction of black stardom.41 But as Baldwin forcefully argues in both essays, star billing simply subjects the films' performers to white racial fantasies in more profound and complex ways.

In the case of Carmen Jones, the film subjects the actors to such fantasies by forcing them to conform to the model of the white star, thereby undercutting the characters that they play. These performers, the film seems to say, "are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower-class Negroes" (as white minstrel performers might) as quaint and uninhibited but certainly not oppressed or threatening ("C," 37–38). In the parallel case of Porgy and Bess, the film, succumbing to the white fantasy of black hypersexuality, attempts to contain the performers' eroticism, creating characters who are flat, lifeless ciphers ("P," 619). Both films attempt to strip the African American actors of the negative associations that the majority-white audience might have with cultural blackness (filth, poverty, and immorality), suggesting that the director and screenwriters felt the need to apologize to the audience for the appearance of these actors on screen.42

Baldwin blames the films' confused character dynamics on Preminger's and his white collaborators' lack of firsthand knowledge of the social milieu purportedly depicted in the films, which is also, crucially, "the life that produced" the actors whom Preminger attempts to direct ("C," 617). Even more insidiously, these films are, Baldwin argues, fueled by a desire not to know more, and they appeal to their white audience precisely on these grounds. Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess participate in constructing a "system of theories or evasions" meant to "cover [the] ignorance" of white America ("P," 618). Herein lies the insidious cultural work of the all-black-cast film subgenre. The actually existing equivalents of the films' settings are, Baldwin stresses, products of longstanding residential segregation and economic inequality. Yet these films attempt to represent African American ghettoes while obscuring the historical responsibility of white people in their creation. Thus, the black world of the films is sealed off into a kind of social "vacuum" that enables "the spectator" to preserve "his own fantasies" ("C," 36). The danger evident here is that the black star vehicle will have the same effect on white viewers, in the end, as do white-dominated Hollywood films. While the white viewer cannot see him- or herself on the all-black screen, the manner in which these films reinforce "the white man's image of the Negro" might simply enable the white viewer, [End Page 402] according to Baldwin's dialectical understanding of identity, "not to be forced to revise his image of himself" ("P," 619–20).

Baldwin concludes "On Catfish Row" with a striking conditional scenario, which takes up the significance of Porgy and Bess for the present and future of racial myth in America:

If the day ever comes when the survivors of the place [of the real Catfish Rows of America, that is of African American ghettoes] can be fooled into believing that the Hollywood cardboard even faintly resembles, or is intended to resemble, what it was like to be there, all of our terrible and beautiful history will have gone for nothing and we will all be doomed to an unimaginable irreality.

("P," 621)

What is at stake in this perilous scenario is the possibility that, by accepting as truthful the Hollywood image of the place, its history—to which the survivors bear witness—will be lost, erased, and "we will all be doomed." In a typically subtle pronoun shift, jumping from the specific group (the African Americans who have lived on "Catfish Row") to the society at large, Baldwin highlights the universal significance of the history to which the former individuals bear witness. If what Baldwin fears comes to pass, then the society as a whole will become trapped in despair and myth: It will be without hope and unable to assess or to use the past. In so far as the future could become utterly closed off from the real and its liberatory potential, "doomed to an unimaginable irreality," "our terrible and beautiful history" would become spiritually dead.

While Baldwin takes this threat seriously, he chooses to keep faith in a different scenario of what is to come, ending the essay with the sort of sharp reversal that characterizes the prophetic mode. In the final two sentences of the essay following the sentence ending "unimaginable irreality," he evokes this coming state of freedom with striking messianic rhetoric: "I prefer to believe that the day is coming when we will tell the truth about it—and ourselves. On that day, and not before that day, we can call ourselves free men" ("P," 621). In this closing gesture, Baldwin reveals how his critique of Porgy and Bess's racial myth is propelled by his willful hope for the future. He rejects the bleak scenario of "unimaginable irreality" and chooses patiently to wait for an unseen, open future, in which collective awareness of the "real" makes social change possible. In this manner, Baldwin refuses to reconcile himself to what exists and reveals how such a refusal drives his critical strategy as an interpreter of film. [End Page 403]

In this passage, Baldwin establishes an urgent conceptual relationship between three temporal moments: the past (that which is supposed to be represented in the film, "what it was like to be there"); the present (his state of mind in writing the essay, what he believes); and the future ("the day is coming when"). For Baldwin, the present perspective on the past is illuminated by the light of what is to come. The expectation of an open, radically different future makes it possible to sustain hope, both for the living (who may then refuse to reconcile themselves with what exists) and, amazingly, for the dead, to whose "terrible and beautiful" history the living bear witness. On this last point, it is crucial to note that "On Catfish Row" is, in part, a eulogy for the recently deceased Billie Holiday. Significantly raising the stakes for any consideration of Porgy and Bess's historical import, Baldwin reads the film in light of Holiday's life—lived on various actual "Catfish Rows"—and artistry, the power of which puts the film's aesthetic failures into relief.

In the way that it links the task of writing history with the project of future liberation, Baldwin's closing gesture recalls Walter Benjamin's famous statement from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins."43 Baldwin's closing statement implicitly establishes the film critic's obligation to "fa[n] the spark of hope in the past" by corroborating, or making available to cultural memory, that which figures freedom as possible and which represents the individual's escape from and challenge to racial definitions. Offering a slight variation on Baldwin's paradoxical statement of fear and hope at the end of "On Catfish Row," we might say that to concede that the filmed image is pure "cardboard" (totally determined by white definitions of "the Negro") would be to extinguish the ember of the "real" in the sphere of Hollywood film.

In cinematic terms, Baldwin locates the ember of the "real"—the element that has the potential to "melt" the film—in the "indelible moment" smuggled into the film by the African American performer who, like the actual "survivors" of "Catfish Row," refuses to succumb to the imprisonment of definitions and material oppression. In both of the early review essays, Baldwin repeatedly draws analogies between these performers' work within a white-dominated system of cinematic production and their own experiences as African Americans in society, which, of course, give them firsthand knowledge of the kinds of historical situations that the films pretend to depict. Indeed, Baldwin's closing [End Page 404] speculations on how Porgy and Bess will be remembered follow his tribute to the resistance of the film's cast members.

Baldwin pays particular attention to the performance of Ruth Attaway, who, in the role of Serena, manages to achieve the kind of distance that Bailey does in Carmen Jones, accomplishing "some genuine depth … which has nothing to do with the vulgar production in which she is, for the rest of the time, quite thanklessly trapped" ("P," 620). Baldwin has in mind here the scene that follows the death of Serena's husband, Robbins (Joel Fluellen), at the hands of Crown (Brock Peters). In this representative scene, Serena physically takes center stage, singing "My Man's Gone Now," while the other members of the community act as a supporting chorus. The scene's cinematography vividly renders the dialectics of singularity and collectivity, flatness and depth that Baldwin evokes in his essay. Occupying the foreground of the frame, Attaway's Serena emerges, however briefly, from the collective background of the film's community. Attaway's proximity to the camera makes her gestures of mourning—clenching her hands, sobbing, clutching a fist to her chest—visually accessible, throwing her figure into a kind of relief that becomes the basis for the "genuine depth" that Baldwin notes.

Attaway's emergence into singular self-expression parallels the physical relief and detail that her figure achieves here, as contrasted to the markedly static, flattened backdrop of the immobilized community members, who, for the first verses of her song, resemble human props or furniture.44 Frozen into a picturesque tableau, the community's positioning reflects its persistent representation in the film according to the logic of romantic racialism, as an undifferentiated group subject prone to spontaneous expressions of affect.45 For Baldwin, Attaway/Serena achieves this "depth" by negating and transcending the film's confining mythic structures. Thus, her vocal and gestural performance in the scene connotes freedom and openness, offering a glimpse of the "real" that becomes fully legible only in terms of the future toward which Baldwin looks in his final sentence.

In Baldwin's emphasis on the resistant, "indelible" moment, he seeks to make film criticism historical, in a way that resonates with Benjamin's messianic concepts. It is necessary for the film critic to sustain hope, to think redemptively. The images approach to film criticism and history risks hastening the conclusion that Baldwin fears at the end of "On Catfish Row." Like the conventional historiography that Benjamin rejects, this approach risks codifying as history what is closed, dead, and unfree: "unimaginable irreality." By giving primacy to the mythic and by fixating on the ways in which the mythic controls [End Page 405] the history of American film representations of African Americans, the images approach offers a falsely objective history of the cinema according to the prerogatives of the powerful, the "victor[s]"; to use Benjamin's terms, it gives the dead over to the enemy.46 In Baldwin's redemptive approach, actors retain the ability to manifest the "real," in the way in which they make themselves and the characters they play present before the camera. Their singularities of expression, the gazes that they return, bear witness to this "real," yielding certain shots that indexically trace what remains possible; therein lies their explosive, "shattering" potential. Like Benjamin, Baldwin rejects the acedia of history written under the sign of myth, "which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine," and out of hope seizes upon the fragment of the real, interpreting it in the light of future possibility.47

Ryan Jay Friedman
The Ohio State University

Notes

For their support and editorial suggestions on earlier drafts of this piece, I would like to express my gratitude to Koritha Mitchell, Jared Gardner, and Ruth Friedman. I am also grateful for the comments offered by members of an audience in the Program in American Studies and Department of English at Northwestern Univ., where, as part of the 2007 "One Book, One Northwestern" series on Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, I presented a shorter version of this piece. Thank you to Mary Huelsbeck for her assistance during a research visit to the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.

1. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 555. Hereafter abbreviated D and cited parenthetically by page number.

2. "A movie is, literally, a series of images, and what one sees in a movie can really be taken, beyond its stammering or misleading dialogue, as the key to what a movie is actually involved in saying" (Baldwin, "Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough," in Collected Essays, 38). This piece originally appeared in the January 1955 issue of Commentary and was republished in Notes of a Native Son later that year. Baldwin's companion piece, "On Catfish Row: Porgy and Bess in the Movies," also was published in Commentary (September 1959). I will be using the versions of these pieces that appear in the Collected Essays volume, hereafter abbreviated "C" and "P" respectively, and cited parenthetically by page number.

3. Baldwin, "No Name in the Street," in Collected Essays, 432, 386.

4. Baldwin, "Nothing Personal," in Collected Essays, 694.

5. For example, one might apply the major insights of Baldwin's film theory to the interpretation of his novels, examining the social and psychological significance of scenes of moviegoing, such as: the scene in Go Tell It on the Mountain, in which John Grimes furtively ventures to a Times Square movie palace to see Of Human Bondage; or the scene in Another Country, in which Cass Silenski weeps while watching a Technicolor film (apparently of Baldwin's own invention) starring Doris Day and James Cagney. For Go Tell It on the Mountain, see Baldwin, James Baldwin: Early Novels & [End Page 406] Stories (New York: Library of America, 1998, 36–38); for Another Country, see Early Novels & Stories, 618–619.

6. Tales of Manhattan is an omnibus film comprised of five narrative vignettes linked by the passage of a single object, a man's tailcoat, from one owner to another. As it changes owners, the coat effectively descends the social ladder, until thieves fleeing to Mexico drop it out of an airplane. The coat thus falls into the hands of a destitute African American couple living somewhere in the rural South, played by Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson. The cast for this final segment—which does not take place in Manhattan at all, the film's title notwithstanding—is exclusively African American, while no African American actors appear in any of the other four segments.

7. Baldwin's uncharacteristic culinary metaphor in this passage speaks to Ginger Rogers's extremely polished hair and makeup in this segment. The film emphasizes her grooming, introducing her character as she receives a pedicure by her maid (who is also white). For a reader familiar with Tales of Manhattan, Baldwin's description suggests that he has constructed a deeper association between the character's cosmetic polish, her vanity and affective vacuousness (emphasized in the segment), and the insulated, white, high-society milieu in which she exists (hence Baldwin's reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eva, from Uncle Tom's Cabin). Yet, in light of this very terse and metaphorically dense description, which does not refer to any particular dramatic situation in the film and which leaves this chain of associations implicit, Baldwin risks suggesting to the reader that he is making a merely aesthetic or physiological judgment.

8. See Baldwin's reading of The Exorcist (Warner Bros., 1973), The Devil Finds Work, 567–71. Baldwin spells "subtext" without a hyphen in all but one case: his statement about how "black spectators supply the sub-text" that makes Poitier's performance in The Defiant Ones legible. I have not been able to determine whether this typographical difference is intentional (and potentially significant) or merely accidental.

9. The film Carmen Jones is based on a stage musical, itself adapted from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. First produced on Broadway in 1943 by Billy Rose, the play reenvisioned Bizet's story and characters in a contemporary African American milieu; Oscar Hammerstein wrote the dialogue and new lyrics for Bizet's melodies. See Arthur Knight, Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002), 159–60. In the film version, Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) works packing parachutes at an unnamed southern army base. There she seduces Joe (Harry Belafonte), a young corporal and aspiring pilot. After he assaults his sergeant, Joe goes AWOL, running to the South Side of Chicago with Carmen. Carmen encounters the prizefighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams) and his entourage, including carmen's sometime friend, Frankie (Pearl Bailey). Following a series of events that, as Baldwin points out, defy logic, Carmen leaves Joe and becomes Husky's girlfriend; a desperate and deranged Joe pursues them and strangles Carmen in the film's climax.

10. Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (London: Dennis Dobson, 1952), 64–65.

11. On "textual system," see Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995), 32.

12. Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1993), 16.

13. Mayne, 18.

14. See Mayne, 122; and the 1970 "collective text," by the editors of Cahiers du cinema, on John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), 446–82. [End Page 407]

15. Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" (1969), trans. Susan Bennett, in Cahiers du Cinéma, 1969–1972: The Politics of Representation, ed. Nick Browne (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), 62–63.

16. While Baldwin's account of "the premise of the story" is, to be sure, extremely skeptical, it is by no means unfounded. The film acknowledges that Noah's animosity toward Joker is, in the first place, a reaction to the kind of white racism that the latter practices so casually. At the same time, The Defiant Ones repeatedly tries to establish points of equivalence between the two characters' attitudes: The film suggests that Joker is a victim of social hierarchy too and that Noah needs to learn to tolerate Joker—that is, to allow him to persist in his state of adolescent innocence, without exposing him out of radical love to the abyss of his singular, abject being—just as Joker needs to learn to tolerate him. Moreover, as Baldwin stresses, the film tends, by making Noah so easily (and violently) provoked by Joker's insults, to suggest that his hatred of the racial other is equally intense and as consuming as Joker's.

17. See Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Viking, 1973); Daniel Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975); and Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977).

18. Jane M. Gaines, Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001), 26.

19. Focusing on the construction of whiteness in classical Hollywood film, Michael Rogin and Carol Clover have pursued extremely productive, psychoanalytically based strategies of symptomatic interpretation. See Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996); and Clover, "Dancin' in the Rain," Critical Inquiry 21 (1995): 722–47. Prior to his tragic death in 1989, James Snead had begun to explore a rigorously theoretical model for black film studies, fusing crucial themes in African American history with semiotic and textualist approaches. In the first chapter of his posthumously published White Screens/Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side (ed. Colin MacCabe and Cornel West [New York: Routledge, 1994], 1–27), Snead teases out the subtextual considerations of colonialism and slavery that underpin the racialist spectacles of King Kong (RKO, 1933).

I must stress that recent scholarship on silent-era African American independent cinema—for example, the work of Gaines, Jacqueline Stewart, Pearl Bowser, and Louise Spence—has pursued a range of complex, specialized interpretive strategies that bear little relation to the "images" approach. Because of Baldwin's particular interests, the present essay focuses on white-managed studio productions of African American-centered films and makes its case for a film textualism attuned to issues of race in relation to this body of films. For reasons that are not fully clear, Baldwin was either not aware of or hostile towards independent black cinemas. He makes no mention of silent-era Race movies (or of the Race movies of the 30s and 40s, and makes only one, very dismissive reference to seventies black cinema: in The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin notes his neglect of "the recent spate of so-called black films" calling them aesthetically limited, exploitative, and even hostile toward "black experience" (555). This aspect of Baldwin's understanding of film might usefully be addressed in another essay, along with the relevance of his criticism to the approaches cited above.

20. See for example Gaines; and Cassandra M. Ellis, "The Black Boy Looks at the Silver Screen: Baldwin as Moviegoer," in Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, ed. D. Quentin Miller (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2000), 190–214. [End Page 408]

21. Mayne, 124. Mayne's notion of the social audience relies on the terminological distinction in film studies between "the subject" and "the viewer." According to this distinction, the "subject" is a position that the narrative cinema constructs for a moviegoer to occupy; it is a point of inscription within the film text or point of address within the cinematic apparatus. The "viewer," by contrast, is "the real person who watches the movies," an individual and "active creator of meaning" (8–9). Hence, the social audience is a group of viewers in this sense.

For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I have tried in this essay to observe the conventional distinction between the terms "spectator(s)" and "viewer"/"audience" as Mayne explains them, rather than using "spectator" in the revised way that she suggests. In commenting on Baldwin's work, my choice of terms also has been informed by his usage. Baldwin most frequently uses the term "viewer," but will, on occasion, use "moviegoer," "spectator," and even "audience," treating all of these terms interchangeably.

22. See Mayne, 156. Jacqueline Stewart recently has elaborated on this aspect of Baldwin's work. She cites Baldwin's anecdote about the "Harlem audience's" response to the conclusion of The Defiant Ones in an insightful discussion of how African American film viewers historically have used vocal performances within the public sphere of the theater as a practice of oppositional spectatorship. See Stewart's "Negroes Laughing at Themselves?: Black Spectatorship and the Performance of Urban Modernity," Critical Inquiry 29 (2003): 650–77.

23. Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 7.

24. Hansen, 7.

25. The understanding of theatrical spectatorship (and thus film spectatorship) that Baldwin expresses here is crucially informed by an underlying analogy between that activity and collective religious worship. At the end of The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin celebrates as a model of true ethical communion the rite of "pleading the blood," as observed in the African American Sanctified Church in which he was raised (D, 565). A rite of spirit possession, pleading the blood is the event that Baldwin uses to structure part three of Go Tell It on the Mountain, in which John Grimes is stricken down on the "threshing floor" of the church and "prayed through" the ordeal of self-encounter by the congregation. In his comments on pleading the blood in the essay and in his visionary fictional rendering of it in the novel, Baldwin reveals how this rite functions as an ideal of ritual aesthetic practice, enabling him to envision secular theater as a form of mutual corroboration of "flesh and blood." In his prefatory notes to The Amen Corner (New York: Dial Press, 1968), a play set in the Sanctified Church, Baldwin makes this analogy explicit: "I knew that out of the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of the theatre, the communion which is the theatre" (xvi).

26. See Gertrud Koch, "The Physiognomy of Things," trans. Miriam Hansen, New German Critique 40 (1987): 167–77.

27. Balázs, 40.

28. Balázs, 61.

29. As Koch has illustrated, Balázs applied the notion of physiognomy—the film medium's ability to give an expressive face and gaze—to nonhuman physical reality, anthropomorphizing and making the visible world newly accessible to human understanding and sympathy. See Koch, 168–71. While Baldwin focuses on the ethical dimensions of human faces alone and eschews this Romantic turn, his approach to the facial close-up represents a fascinating, unexpected extension of this gaze-centered concept of intersubjectivity in film. Baldwin's understanding of film physiognomy might thus be usefully compared with Walter Benjamin's notion of "aura," which also [End Page 409] extends and complicates Balázs's basic framework ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 217. See also Koch, 171–74; and Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,'" New German Critique 40 (1987): 179–224.

30. André Bazin, "Theater and Cinema," What Is Cinema?, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), 98–99.

31. The quoted phrases are from one Rosenkrantz, whose article Bazin cites approvingly. See Bazin, 99.

32. Bazin, 100. In a similar vein to the comparison offered above, Mayne and Gaines have drawn out suggestive parallels between Baldwin's understanding of the imaginary mechanism of screen identification and the arguments made in the 1970s by influential theorists of the cinematic apparatus such as Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz. See, for example, Gaines, 24–28. See also Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in her Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989), 17–30; and Metz, 42–57.

33. Baldwin, "Nothing Personal," 695. My thinking on this distinction between "singularity" and "identity" has been informed significantly by Kevin Bell's Ashes Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007); see especially 1–18.

34. It should be noted here that, in the opening section of The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin also pays tribute to alternative modes of star performance that break down rather than shore up "identities." He describes his youthful fascination with white female stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Sylvia Sidney. Gaines has argued powerfully that these recollections pursue a theory of queer spectatorship grounded in specular relations like "cross-identification" and "disidentification" (35). Baldwin describes a sense of seeing himself in the screen images of these white female stars, despite the seeming incompatibility of their social identities with his own. Baldwin's sense of resemblance to Bette Davis is due in part to her "pop-eyes," (D, 482) which seem to make her "ugly" in the same way that the young Baldwin has been made to feel by his father. Despite his knowledge that Davis is white, Baldwin was not then able to reconcile her physiognomy and way of moving with the definitions of whiteness that have been foisted upon him. Seeing himself in Davis, Baldwin is able to call into question his father's description of him and the sense conveyed to him "by everyone" else of being somehow "strange" (D, 483). As Gaines stresses, this sense of strangeness is not only racial but also gendered and sexual: Baldwin's identification with Davis's screen image expresses his nascent sense of queerness and belongs to a "camp" tradition of gay-male identification with female film stars. This tradition, Gaines argues, revels in "discrepancies" between appearance and being, between subjects and their expected social roles, and recasts "identity" as theatrical play (36–37).

In a similar vein, Baldwin allows a space for shattering, "indelible moments" by white performers, in so far as they are able dramatically to negate the mythic, fantasy-based selfhood he associates with whiteness. His discussions of Bette Davis's performance in In This Our Life (Warner Bros., 1942) and of Henry Fonda's performance in The Grapes of Wrath (Warner Bros., 1940) are cases in point. See The Devil Finds Work, 521–22, 493–94. See also Mayne's discussion of Baldwin's interest in Davis, 138–39.

35. "No Name in the Street," 366; and Blues for Mister Charlie: A Drama in Three Acts (New York: S. French, 1964), 5. [End Page 410]

36. See Baldwin, "No Name in the Street," 365–66, 386; and The Devil Finds Work, 555.

37. My rhetoric here and in what follows draws on a characteristic passage in Baldwin's "Nothing Personal," 694.

38. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, in Collected Essays, 294.

39. Baldwin's frequent linkage of terms like "sorrow," "despair," and "apathy" evokes this theological concept, usually translated too narrowly as "sloth." See Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, trans. Walter Lowrie, 2 vol. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), volume 2, page 190.

40. Baldwin, "Nothing Personal," 694.

41. On the history of the films' reception, see Knight, 159–68.

42. One could argue that the film ostensibly presents these characters as "positive" African American "images," highlighting the inherent ironies of the images approach. As Robert Stam and Louise Spence have pointed out, value judgments of what is "positive" or "negative" are always relative; moreover, the representational work of fashioning self-consciously "positive images" belies a certain condescension or even hostility toward the group being represented ("Colonialism, Racism and Representation: An Introduction," Screen 24.2 [1980]: 9).

43. Benjamin, 255. My reading of Benjamin's theses and my thinking about how they might relate to Baldwin's work have been shaped crucially by Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. James Leitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 265–70.

44. Given Baldwin's belief in the capacity of stage drama to render the "flesh-and-blood" person, it is ironic that Porgy and Bess's "cardboard" aesthetic derives, precisely, from its self-conscious theatricality. By shutting out the natural environment almost entirely and constructing a world of painted sets, the film establishes a confining equivalence between characters and built space, in which both are supposed to connote rustic, picturesque deterioration for the film's intended audience. In Baldwin's reading, this equivalence between people and the material world serves to situate the former in an alienated, mythic setting outside of history or specific social determinants.

45. On romantic racialism, see George Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 97–129.

46. Benjamin, 256.

47. Benjamin, 256. [End Page 411]

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
385-412
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-06
Open Access
No
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