James Baldwin On 'The Devil Finds Work' James Baldwin discusses cinema's role in perpetuating myths about American history and culture. He warns that "history is not a matter of the past. It's a matter of the present."

James Baldwin Examines The Role Of Film In American Mythmaking

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OSCAR BRAND: Or to James Baldwin, who has his own ideas.

JAMES BALDWIN: The day comes when you realize that, between John Wayne and the Indians, you're the Indian. You know, the day comes when you realize the loyal n***** maid, the loyal n***** servant - that's you. That's what you're supposed to be. That's where your rupture with the American cinema is - begins and is total. Then you begin to look at it, and you begin to see that the legends, the myths, the images, the myths perpetuated are really designed at bottom to justify white history, which means it has to justify your slavery.

BRAND: In his youth, James Baldwin followed his father's trade, and he was a fairly competent minister of the gospel. Now, perhaps that accounts for some of his evangelical fervor, or perhaps he's powered by a heightened sense of injustice. Certainly his famous "The Fire Next Time" was a searing and sobering tract. Certainly it was as timely as the piercing calls for human rights in the 1850s by such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, such former slaves as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass. Baldwin has a new book out called "The Devil Finds Work," and in it, he turns upon the world of film fantasy that formed America's popular philosophies out there in Hollywood, U.S.A. And he expresses to our interviewer, Bob Monteigel, his distaste for the United States cinema.

BALDWIN: The history of the American cinema, in ways - this is putting it much too simply, but one of the things that happened to it was it became immediately the property of the banks. You know, it became big business almost at once. Now, once it becomes big business, it's a dream factory. It manufactures dreams. You know, it manufactures what they think the people want and what, on some level, the people really do want, you know, and doesn't dare risk - can't risk alienating the mass audience by anything resembling the truth.

It would be very difficult, for example, to imagine a film today like "They Won't Forget," which is a very cold study of a Southern lynching. It was made in 1937, I think. And the things which followed it, like "Intruder In The Dust," which I mentioned, and (unintelligible), which I mentioned, try to soften and moralize a brutality which is a part of our history, you know? And the reading of a letter after the lynching does not redeem the lynching, and it doesn't change the people, you know?

It is very hard, on the other hand, to bear the truth, you know? And the truth is the word I shouldn't throw around. I mean something which at least is not a lie. You know, something very dangerous happens, I think, when a whole population and a whole - and generations grow up believing the American myth as it is projected from the screen. It means, for one thing, they have no sense whatever of American history, and history is not a matter of the past. It's a matter of the present. If you don't understand what happened, you don't understand what's happening.

BOB MONTIEGEL, BYLINE: You know, in reading the book - marvelous insights and fine writing as always. For some of us who haven't seen some of the films, it's a little difficult. But say we have all seen "The Lady Sings The Blues"...

BALDWIN: Yeah.

MONTIEGEL: ...And Billie Holiday. Where does that film fall short in your mind?

BALDWIN: Well, first of all, it has nothing to do with Billie Holiday. It has nothing to do with Black life. It has nothing to do with the music business. It has nothing to do with the narcotics laws. It has nothing to do with love or life or death. It is a fantasy.

MONTIEGEL: How should it have been done?

BALDWIN: Well, it should have been done truthfully. It should have told some - it should have told us something about Billie. You know, Diana Ross was very good in it. But the script is a disaster, and the way it softens - and, well, one detail - Billie talks about her father and how he died in the Deep South because they wouldn't let him into any hospital because he was Black. And by the time they did that, I mean, it was too late, and he died. And she says that she sang "Strange Fruit" for her father. When that song came along, it seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pops. She says that.

Now, in the film, there's no father, obviously. And to give us some kind of clue to Billie's addiction - which is never really handled, either - we are confronted with a lynching and the Ku Klux Klan. Now, I hate to put it this way, but no Black person born in this country will believe that lynching on the screen, you know? It's a debasement of our experience. I might even say a debasement of our common experience because your experience - it's your life, too. That moment in the film is a lie, and that moment with the Ku Klux Klan in the film is a lie. And it is done that way in order to give you a familiar image, really, you know, to get everybody off the hook because obviously, no one in the audience is a lyncher and no one in the audience is a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. If we had been given the real reason, the reason that Billie gives, then we might have had a movie.

MONTIEGEL: Tell us; since the days when - that day that you published "The Fire Next Time" and today, are things better, the same, worse, getting better?

BALDWIN: I just left Boston yesterday, and I was in Little Rock 20 years ago. Getting better - the racial attitudes of this country and the panic of this country, that hasn't changed. Institutions haven't changed, you know? I refuse to be despairing, but...

MONTIEGEL: Well, where do you get your hope if you're not despairing?

BALDWIN: Well, I believe that people can be better than they are. You know, in any case, as long as you're breathing, walking the earth, you know, you've got no right to despair.

BRAND: A new James Baldwin with no right to despair with our Bob Monteigel in our Washington studio.

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