Writer James Baldwin left a lasting imprint on American race relations and culture. Through his novels, essays, screenplays, and poems, his often deeply personal stories and honest observations offered penetrating insights into 20th-century society.
“In 1948, feeling stifled creatively because of the racial discrimination in America, Baldwin traveled to Europe to create what were later acclaimed as masterpieces to the American literature canon,” the National Museum of Africa American History states on its website. “While living in Paris, Baldwin was able to separate himself from American segregated society and better write about his experience in the culture that was prevalent in America.”
His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, takes place over a 24-hour period in New York City in 1935, though it includes flashbacks of life in the Deep South. The semi-autobiographical central character, John Grimes, is an intelligent teenager struggling with guilt over his sexual orientation and religious teachings.
However, Go Tell It on the Mountain is much more than one person’s story. Through different characters, this 1953 book also addresses the consequences of slavery on perpetrators of racism and generations of African Americans, including those who joined the Great Migration.
Baldwin’s works inspired celebrated filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, along with generations of writers and intellectuals. In addition, the writer’s unflinching approach led directly to University of Toronto scholar Ian Williams writing his landmark 2021 nonfiction book, Disorientation: Being Black in the World. It provided deep insights into the psychic toll of being constantly reminded of one’s race in a multitude of ways.
Watch James Baldwin’s response to a philosophy professor in I am Not Your Negro.
Three films show different sides of Baldwin
Over the next five days (February 17 to 21), the VIFF Centre will present new restorations of three short documentaries on Baldwin, which were made between 1968 and 1973. James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul – Paris – London is part of the VIFF Centre’s Black History Month: Dispatches series.
Turkish filmmaker Sedat Pakay directed “James Baldwin: From Another Place”. Released in 1973, this 12-minute documentary features Baldwin sharing his thoughts in the streets and a public park in Istanbul.
The second film is Terence Dixon’s 26-minute “Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris”, which was released in 1971. “The early sequences find Baldwin uncooperative, even hostile to the British director and cameraman, clearly resenting their controlling role,” the VIFF Centre states on its website. “He brings them to the Bastille, whose significance he explains: ‘They tore down this prison… I am trying to tear a prison down too.’ ”
Horace Ové directed the third short documentary, “Baldwin’s N*****”. Released in 1968, it shows Baldwin hanging out with his friend, comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Baldwin also delivers a speech about Black identity at the West Indian Student Centre in London.
Black History Month continues until February 28.
For tickets and more information on James Baldwin Abroad: Istanbul – Paris – London, visit the VIFF Centre website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.