385 The Devil Finds Work

devilfindsworkby James Baldwin, 1976

In this short volume, Baldwin presents three essays centered around film and the black experience. They are as scathing as any of his non-fiction work, showing how the systemic oppression of the country is inescapable in both daily life and in the fantastical world of movies. Nothing escapes Baldwin’s powerful perception as he deconstructs the societal institutions that are reproduced on the screen. I haven’t seen all of the films that Baldwin critiques here, but his forceful and eloquent remarks had me writing down titles to add to my to-watch list in effort to better understand the culture that perpetuates these harmful systems.

Baldwin has previously written about the protest novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and here he returns to muse on the film and what it meant for him as a child. He writes that because Uncle Tom would not enact vengeance upon his oppressors, he couldn’t serve as a hero. Beyond that, he knew heroes as only white, both from what he saw on the screen and from what he was presented with in daily life. He says he feared those “heroes” because they did what Uncle Tom did not: “they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take.” To illustrate the point, he makes a reference to the Scottsboro Boys, a case in which nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women and for which eight of whom were convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The boys did nothing to deserve the vengeance wrought upon them, yet they were the victims of it, a fact that led Baldwin to understand, “my countrymen were my enemy.”

The Birth of a Nation, the notoriously racist 1915 film, receives Baldwin’s critique not just for its perpetuation of racist lies, but for how ridiculous the plot is. He describes the story as presenting a southern politician who takes a mixed race enslaved woman as a mistress whose powers of seduction are somehow responsible for the fall of the South. “I cannot tell you exactly how she brings about so devastating a fate,” he writes, “and I defy anyone to tell me: but she does.” He writes of the image of the Statue of Liberty and the false presentation of the enslaved looking at the “Promised Land” with hope, as if they are eager to be bought and sold there. The critique is, at one point, humorous, as he writes that while the mixed race women are “driven by a hideous lust for whites…they are, at least, thank heaven, heterosexual, due, probably, to their lack of imagination.” In our critiques of racial discrimination, we often overlook all of the other ways oppression presents itself, but Baldwin is always there to direct our gaze.

Baldwin has similar things to say about The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. In the 1958 film, two prisoners, one black and one white, escape but remain shackled to each other and have to work together to survive. Baldwin explains that their initial inevitable feelings of hatred could not possibly be equal, as while the white man hates out of terror, the black man hates out of rage: “he does not so much hate the white man as simply want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way.” Despite the fact that they are eventually physically separated from each other, they stick together in their continued attempt to escape, even when a white woman attempts to send Poitier’s character away to his doom. The two reunite, and Baldwin asks what we are to make of this. Certainly not that they’re homosexual, he muses, for Americans are not ready to use that word as anything but a noun. This word, too, inspires terror, that of human touch, for “a black man and a white man can come together only in the absence of women: which is, simply, the American legend of masculinity brought to its highest pressure, and revealed, as it were, in black and white.”

Baldwin rounds out the essays by discussing The Exorcist and proclaiming that we must all face the devil in the mirror every day. He says that he has seen the devil in the ordinary people around him; evil has no need to possess little girls and make them levitate as he does in the film. He calls the movie’s version of evil mindless, hysterical, and banal, asserting that if Americans claim not to know more about evil than what is shown on the screen, they are lying. The movie’s ending rings false, as the girl transfers the evil to one of the priests and he jumps out of the window, taking the spirit with him. Evil, in the real world, will not be that easily dismissed.

★★★★☆

3 thoughts on “385 The Devil Finds Work

  1. Pingback: 409 One Day When I Was Lost | The Thousand Book Project

  2. Pingback: 413 I Am Not Your Negro | The Thousand Book Project

  3. Pingback: Nonfiction November Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction | The Thousand Book Project

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