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James Baldwin Died Today in History; No Biopic Yet, Although Raoul Peck is Working on a Documentary

James Baldwin Died Today in History; No Biopic Yet, Although Raoul Peck is Working on a Documentary

James Arthur Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, on this day, December 1, 1987. He would have been 91 years young this year, were he still alive today.

A scripted feature film on the life of James Baldwin doesn’t exist, unbelievably. There’ve been documentaries like “The Price of a Ticket,” but no biopics I’m aware of, or if one has even been attempted.

The only project I know with certainty that’s currently in development is actually a documentary from Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. Although details on it aren’t yet available in full, what we do know should definitely pique your curiosity.

It’s a project he’s been working on for at least 6 years, and it’s being made with the full cooperation of the Baldwin estate, which is always a plus.

Peck describes it as “a very creative documentary.” What might he mean by that? In short, the film will toy with the idea that Baldwin actually wrote what was to be an ambitious book – “a masterpiece” as Peck puts it – on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., whose lives all ended in assassinations. Baldwin knew it would be a challenge, and didn’t believe it would sell, but he felt that he needed to write it. Baldwin never did write the book (Peck learned about it via letters Baldwin sent to his agent); but Peck’s “creative documentary” will imagine that he did. As the filmmaker has said: “The starting point of the film is to say – yes, he wrote it. He just didn’t bind it together, but if you go through his work, the film is there.”

All Peck has to build on are 30 pages of Baldwin’s notes for the book, and the rights to all of Baldwin’s writings, of course, since it’s a project being made with Baldwin’s estate’s blessings.

Why a film on Baldwin? Peck’s response: “Because Baldwin is my life… I started reading Baldwin when I was 14 or 15, and I realized as an adult a lot of the things I was saying came from him.”

Has a definitive film/documentary on the life of James Baldwin ever been produced? I don’t believe so, which makes Peck’s project all the more significant!

When I know more, I’ll share here.

In the meantime… a flashback. 

A search for James Baldwin’s name on YouTube, Vimeo or other video sharing sites, will return several clips featuring the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. He lives on, in both still and moving pictures, as well as in books. So you have a variety of ways to remember him today.

Here’s my contribution: A 1963 documentary titled “Take This Hammer.”

The short version of the story goes… in the spring of 1963, KQED followed Baldwin, as he was driven around San Francisco, meeting with members of the local African American community, intent on discovering “the real situation of Negroes in the city.”

As the documentary shows, and something we’ve repeatedly highlighted on this blog with respect to black cinema, the conversations we (black people) were having in 1963 on issues we faced (jobs, housing, prisons, education, police, etc) are pretty much the same conversations we are having in 2015.

What have we learned? What happens now? Will we still be having similar conversations in another 50 years?

Watch the 44-minute documentary below:

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