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Hey New York! ‘The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film’ Series Kicks Off Tomorrow, Sept 11

Hey New York! 'The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film' Series Kicks Off Tomorrow, Sept 11

I don’t know how much of this I’ll be able to take in this weekend, but for those of you in NYC, consider this a reminder, as it kicks off tomorrow, Friday, September 11.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center will recognize James Baldwin (we celebrated what would’ve been his 91st birthday last month) with a film series titled “The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film,” set for September 11-14. 

Obviously named after Baldwin’s 1976 book-length essay, “The Devil Finds Works,” the series is programmed by Rich Blint and Jake Perlin, co-presented with Columbia University School of the Arts Office of Community Outreach and Education. 

In Baldwin’s book (which you can buy at any on- or offline book store), you’ll read his personal reflections on films, offering an incisive look at racism in American movies. Baldwin challenges the underlying assumptions in films like popular classic liberal favorites, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as the horror favorite “The Exorcist,” and “The Defiant Ones,” to start, highlighting America’s biases and ignorance reflected by the films that have entertained Americans and shaped the country’s consciousness.

The series isn’t so obvious as to include those films (except for “The Defiant Ones”); instead, as the press release states, this is “an attempt to assemble and reflect on Baldwin’s early and lasting fascination with American cinema… [its] distorted power… and the complex racial politics that inform such cultural production.” 

Set to screen what will be many rare prints with never-before-seen footage, the release further states: “The series will feature his numerous appearances on television; film documents of his sojourns in Paris, Istanbul, San Francisco, and London; film adaptations of novels that preoccupied Baldwin, with their themes of racial and class differences, such as ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘The Defiant Ones,’ ‘Native Son;’ and a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Naked Night’ (aka ‘Sawdust and Tinsel’), which Baldwin singled out for praise. Documentaries in which he played a significant part or of which he was the subject, such as ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ ‘James Baldwin’s Harlem,’ ‘Take This Hammer’ (screening in an extended “director’s cut”), and the newly remastered ‘The Price of the Ticket,’ will also be featured. The survey will close with never-before-seen raw footage from Baldwin’s 1987 funeral service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (only portions of which were seen in ‘The Price of the Ticket’), with stirring eulogies from Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka.” 

It’s an event spotlight that follows the celebration of another “bold subject” in actress Gloria Grahame (titled Gloria Grahame: Blonde Ambition).

Check out the full Baldwin lineup below.

The Defiant Ones
Stanley Kramer, USA, 1958, 35mm, 96m
A huge hit when it was released, The Defiant Ones stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts from a chain gang in the South who are literally yoked together. In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin states that this domestic drama about race during the middle of the last century “is being offered as a metaphor for the ordeal of black-white relations in America, an ordeal, the film is saying, that has brought us closer together than we know.” It is this effort “of the most disastrous sentimentality to bring black men into the white American nightmare” that the author suggests caused Harlem audiences to resent the film while white liberal viewers applauded.

Screening with:

My Childhood Part 2: James Baldwin’s Harlem
Arthur Barron, USA, 1964, digital projection, 30m
James Baldwin narrates how his early years in Harlem made him alive to the forces at work in the city and American society to manage the black population. Describing the economic and visual disparity of New York’s famed Fifth Avenue that runs through Manhattan and Harlem, Baldwin reminds us that the “avenue is elsewhere the renowned and elegant Fifth,” but venturing north “we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue, facing a project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and cowardice of good intentions.”
Friday, September 11, 6:00pm
* Venue: Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street

The Devil Finds Work Program:
An illustrated discussion and presentation of clips of films discussed by Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work, including The Birth of a Nation, The Exorcist, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones. A sustained and animated engagement of the text, this panel and selected screenings will take up Baldwin’s aesthetic analysis of the films and commentary on how these works operate in American culture and spectatorship. Panelists include: Michele Wallace, Sam Pollard, Trey Ellis, and others to be announced.
Saturday, September 12, 12:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

Go Tell It on the Mountain
Stan Lathan, USA, 1984, 16mm, 96m
This poignant adaptation of James Baldwin’s first novel restages the conflict of religion, sexuality, race, and poverty in 1920s and 1930s Harlem that shaped so much of the author’s political, spiritual, and moral convictions.
Sunday, September 13, 5:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Pat Hartley & Dick Fontaine, USA/UK, 1982, digital projection, 95m
James Baldwin retraces his time in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, reflecting with his trademark brilliance and insight on the passage of more than two decades. From Selma and Birmingham, and Atlanta, to the battleground beaches of St. Augustine, Florida, with Chinua Achebe, and back north for a visit to Newark with Amiri Baraka, Baldwin lays bare the fiction of progress in post–Civil Rights America—wondering “what happened to the children” and those “who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on Freedom Road.”

Screening with:

James Baldwin from Another Place
Sedat Pakay, Turkey, 1973, 35mm, 13m
This short finds James Baldwin in Istanbul musing about race, the American fascination with sexuality, insights into his interrupted writing decade in the country, the generosity of the Turks, and how being in another country, in another place, forces one to re-examine well-established attitudes about modern society.
Friday, September 11, 9:00pm
* Venue: Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street

I Remember Harlem
William Miles, USA, 1981, 16mm, 240m
Baldwin is interviewed for William Miles’s landmark epic documenting the early settlement of the Village of Harlem in the 17th century, to the specter of urban renewal and redevelopment in the 1970s. The film chronicles the centuries of change and political and artistic expression that has made this complex hamlet the capital of urban America.
Sunday, September 13, 12:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

James Baldwin Funeral Service – Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Karen Thorsen, Bill Dill & Gregory Andracke, USA, 1987, digital projection, 45m
Never-before-seen raw footage from Baldwin’s 1987 funeral service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (only portions were seen in The Price of the Ticket), featuring eulogies from Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka and powerful drumming led by Nigerian master Babatunde Olatunji.
Monday, September 14, 9:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

James Baldwin in Paris
Terence Dixon, UK/France, 1971, digital projection, 31m
An extremely rare film document photographed by Jack Hazan (Rude Boy, A Bigger Splash) in several symbolic locations, including the Place de la Bastille. As Hazan recounts: “Things don’t go to plan for him and the film crew when a couple of young black Vietnam draft dodgers impose themselves on the American. Baldwin wrestles with being a role model to the black youths, denouncing Western colonialism and crimes against African Americans while at the same time demonstrating his mastery and understanding of the culture he supposedly despises.” 

Screening with:

Baldwin’s Nigger
Horace Ové, UK, 1968, 16mm, 46min
James Baldwin, alongside Dick Gregory, speaks and responds to questions at the West Indian Student Centre in London about race and identity in America as he draws correspondences between the situation in the U.S. and the UK.
Saturday, September 12, 7:15pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket
Karen Thorsen, USA, 1989, DCP, 86m
For years the authoritative film biography of James Baldwin, this newly restored and remastered documentary gathers together scores of rare archival footage of Baldwin and his contemporaries to shape this remarkable account of his life and work. Film Restoration and Digital Remastering made possible by The Ford Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, Maysles Documentary Center, Stan & Joanne Marder, Goldcrest Post.
Monday, September 14, 6:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

James Baldwin Speaks Program:
A selection of clips featuring Baldwin in discussion and debate with his contemporaries, including William F. Buckley, Marlon Brando, and Harry Belafonte, along with speeches and commentary documented for television—both inside the studio and out—over his long career as America’s foremost insightful and prescient public intellectual. Discussants include Darryl Pinckney and others to be announced.
Saturday, September 12, 4:45pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

The Naked Night (aka Sawdust and Tinsel)
Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1953, 16mm, 95m
Swedish with English subtitles
Considered by Baldwin as “one of the very few genuine artists now working in film,” Bergman was the subject of intense interest from the American author who flew to Stockholm to meet and interview him, culminating in his essay “The Northern Protestant.” For Baldwin,Sawdust and Tinsel was Bergman’s best film, which he characterized as “moving” and “uncannily precise and truthful.” We will screen an original release print of the film under the original U.S. title, The Naked Night.
Saturday, September 12, 2:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

Native Son
Pierre Chenal, Argentina/USA, 1951, 35mm, 104m
Based on the terrifically successful 1940 novel by Richard Wright and shot in Argentina, this striking work tells the story of the accidental death of a white Chicago heiress at the hands of a young black man from the South Side. It stars the author in the lead role of Bigger Thomas, the “horror” of which Baldwin suggested “was later abundantly justified.” In his first major essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin speculated that “below the surface of his novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a compliment of that monstrous legend it was intended to destroy.”
Friday, September 11, 3:30pm
* Venue: Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street

Take This Hammer – FREE SCREENING
Richard O. Moore, USA, 1963, digital projection, 58m
James Baldwin’s devastating 1963 tour of San Francisco, filmed and released by KQED, documents the struggle to shield black children in the city from the almost universal message of dispossession and despair that at the time engulfed communities already under siege by the forces of gentrification and urban renewal: “What precisely do you say to a Negro child to invest him with a moral which the country is determined he shan’t have … To insist that he know that he can do anything he wants to?”

Screening with:

The Negro and the American Promise
WGBH, USA, 1963, digital projection, 59m
This is a series of three interviews for Boston public television, with Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X speaking individually with Kenneth Clark, commenting on one another’s ideas and philosophies, just after the now-infamous meeting with Robert Kennedy. The New York Times characterized Baldwin’s powerful segment as “a television experience that seared the consciousness.”
Saturday, September 12, 9:15pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

A Tale of Two Cities
Jack Conway, USA, 1935, 35mm, 128m
“I did not believe in any of these people so much as I believed in their situation.” In the beginning of The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin extensively discusses A Tale of Two Cities, recalling how “haunted” he was by Dickens’s novel, reading it “over and over and over again,” seeing himself and his family’s lives and struggles mirrored in the quest for freedom that characterized the French Revolution. As Baldwin reflects: “The guillotine was going to chop off Sydney Carton’s head: my first director was instructing me in the discipline and power of make-believe.”
Sunday, September 13, 8:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street

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