The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin Goes to the Movies

5 Apr

I’m always thrilled when a great writer not known for writing about film tackles the subject and applies particular insights that film historians and critics may miss about important films of the past. I already wrote about Gore Vidal’s contribution, Screening History, back on August 2, 2012, not long after Vidal’s death. For this entry, I have retrieved a review I wrote in early 2001 of a book published in 1976 by novelist/essayist James Baldwin (1924-1987) called The Devil Finds Work, which explores Baldwin’s reactions to Hollywood movies over the years. I submitted this review to a print publication, which had enthusiastically accepted my pitch, since the book had only recently been reissued, but I never saw a copy of the publication and never got paid, nor do I know to this day if the review was ever actually published. So here it is, finally seeing the light of day. The complete review follows; the only alterations I’ve made are the restoration of full quotes from the book that I’d initially shortened to meet the required word count.

Baldwin 1



James Baldwin

Delta, $11.95, 127pp.

ISBN: 0385334605

Reviewed by Brian Camp



The Devil Finds Work is James Baldwin’s contribution to the rarefied body of books about film by authors who were known primarily for other subjects, a group which includes such illustrious company as Gore Vidal, Camille Paglia, and Graham Greene. Baldwin, best known for novels (Go Tell It on the Mountain) and nonfiction treatments of race in America (The Fire Next Time) was not afraid to tie the tricky undercurrents of race to the fears and evasions which underlie so much of American cinema. Baldwin’s insights into Hollywood film in general are of much value to historians and film buffs, as well as his understanding of black audience response to these films, accounts of which are generally absent from critical studies of American film history. Baldwin has the enthusiasm of a film lover, the sharp, analytical eye of the very best critics, and the hard-won skepticism of a realist.

Baldwin devotes roughly half the book to his own youth in the 1930s and early ’40s, spent seeing films in Manhattan, both downtown and uptown, and the impact of certain films on him and their intersection with other areas of his life. He rounds out the book with choice dissections of a handful of highly-acclaimed, well-meaning liberal films from the 20 or so years preceding the book’s publication in 1976. The recurring theme is how the issue of race continually informs American films, even when they are not ostensibly about race. The range of films discussed extends from Birth of a Nation (1915), arguably the film industry’s first full-scale cinematic treatment of race relations in the U.S., to The Exorcist (1973), and includes such 1930s classics as A Tale of Two Cities, Dead End and You Only Live Once; such Sidney Poitier films as The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and Lady Sings the Blues. Interspersed are related incidents from Baldwin’s own life, including a clash with producers in Hollywood while working on a screenplay about Malcolm X.

Baldwin was blessed early on with the ability to see through the artifice of Hollywood films and identify those isolated moments of truth in an entertainment medium notable, then and now, for elaborate technical displays designed to keep reality at bay. He was aided in his adolescence by the friendship and guidance offered by a white female teacher named Orilla “Bill” Miller, who took him to films and plays and gave him books to read. His relationship with her informs the first essay of the three-part book, “Congo Square,” and she pops up in his description of his teenaged reaction to Sylvia Sidney, a female star of the 1930s best known today for her roles in such socially-conscious films of the era as Street Scene, Fury, You Only Live Once, and Dead End:

“Sylvia Sidney was the only American film actress who reminded me of a colored girl, or woman—which is to say that she was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality. All of the others, without exception, were white, and even when they moved me (like Margaret Sullavan or Bette Davis or Carole Lombard) they moved me from that distance….It was almost as though she and I had a secret: she seemed to know something I knew….”

He goes on to describe Sidney’s roles in several 1930s films, including Dead End, in which she faces down a cop and shows off the bruise one of them had given her, and he adds, “I always believed her—in a way, she reminded me of Bill, for I had seen Bill facing hostile cops.”


Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Billy Halop in DEAD END (1937)

Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Billy Halop in DEAD END (1937)

As an aside, Baldwin also describes the one male movie star who left a similar impression: “…the only actor of the era with whom I identified was Henry Fonda. I was not alone. A black friend of mine, after seeing Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, swore that Fonda had colored blood. You could tell, he said, by the way Fonda walked down the road at the end of the film: white men don’t walk like that! And he imitated Fonda’s stubborn, patient, wide-legged hike away from the camera.”

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)

Not coincidentally, Sidney and Fonda co-starred in a film that Baldwin devotes a good deal of attention to, You Only Live Once, director Fritz Lang’s 1937 crime drama about a husband and wife on the run from the law, in a coupling meant to recall Bonnie and Clyde, whose criminal career had made headlines just a few years earlier. In the film, the attempts of the husband, an ex-con, to go straight are stymied by a relentless legal system determined to send him back to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Baldwin says of Lang’s film that it “was the most powerful movie I had seen until that moment.” He ties the film’s sentiments to the tenor of the times in a devastating statement that sums up the devolution of 1930s-era social consciousness in the face of wartime unity and postwar anti-communist repression: “The genuine indignation which informs this film is a quality which was very shortly to disappear out of the American cinema, and severely to be menaced in American life.”

Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937)

Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937)

Baldwin goes on to single out In This Our Life, a high-powered Hollywood melodrama which managed to brush up against racial issues too closely for comfort, apparently, for the Harlem theater owners. In the film, Bette Davis plays a spoiled southern girl who kills someone in a hit-and-run accident and blames it on her young black chauffeur, a college student. In a remarkable scene, she goes to the jailhouse and tries to convince the chauffeur (played by Ernest Anderson) to plead guilty even though she knows that he knows she is the guilty party. In one paragraph Baldwin sums up the film, recalls the Harlem audience reaction, and attributes a high level of emotional intelligence to the film’s notably iconoclastic star:

“In 1942, Bette Davis, under the direction of John Huston, delivered a ruthlessly accurate (and much underrated) portrait of a southern girl, in the Warner Brothers production of Ellen Glasgow’s novel, In This, Our Life. She thus became, and indeed, remained, the toast of Harlem because her prison scene with the black chauffeur was cut when the movie came uptown. The uproar in Harlem was impressive, and I think that the scene was reinserted; in any case, either uptown or downtown, I saw it. Davis appeared to have read, and grasped, the script—which must have made her rather lonely—and she certainly understood the role. Her performance had the effect, rather, of exposing and shattering the film, so that she played in a kind of vacuum…”

Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan in IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan in IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

In his discussions of a later group of films, Baldwin marvels at the distortions of several highly regarded liberal Hollywood films. In discussing The Defiant Ones, a 1958 drama directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as a pair of escaped convicts chained together, he recalls the differing audience reactions: “It is this which black audiences resented about The Defiant Ones: that Sidney was in company far beneath him, and that the unmistakable truth of his performance was being placed at the mercy of a lie. Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. The Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, Get back on the train, you fool!

Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)

Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)

Baldwin deftly unmasks the underlying motive for this ending, and for so many subsequent Hollywood treatments of race, and reveals the shaky foundation on which it totters:

“Well. He jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they are not hated; that, though they have made human errors, they have done nothing for which to be hated. Well, blacks may or may not hate whites, and when they do, as I have tried to indicate, it’s in their fashion. Whites may or may not deserve to be hated, depending on how one manipulates one’s reserves of energy, and what one makes of history: in any case, the reassurance is false, the need ignoble, and the question, in this context, absolutely irrelevant.”

Baldwin goes on to take equal aim at the two films which cemented Poitier’s status as a Hollywood superstar, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

The final film Baldwin treats is The Exorcist, which had special meaning for him, because of his own history of “possession”–by the Holy Ghost–when he served as a boy preacher, “young Brother Baldwin,” in a Harlem Church during his teen years. He boldly compares his experience of Satan with that depicted in the film, in which a young girl is possessed by the devil and wreaks bloody havoc, courtesy of a high special effects budget, on her movie star mother and a pair of Catholic priests: “The Exorcist has absolutely nothing going for it, except Satan, who is certainly the star: I can say only that Satan was never like that when he crossed my path (for one thing, the evil one never so rudely underestimated me). His concerns were more various, and his methods more subtle.” Baldwin refuses to let the film close his book without connecting it to the inescapable theme of race in America:

“The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet. At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing: she is departing with her mother, who will, presumably, soon make another film. The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton fields and migrant shacks and ghettoes of this nation, and in the schools and prisons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.”

Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST (1973)

Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST (1973)

One needn’t have seen the films Baldwin cites to enjoy his biting analyses, although one may want to rush out and do so afterwards, nor does one have to be a film buff. In an era when more black films and TV shows are being made and more black movie stars have gone mainstream, the treatment of race by Hollywood remains as problematic as ever and the need for a spirited and uncompromising critical sensibility, tempered by a genuine passion for the art form and an engaging prose style, is also as strong as ever.

One Response to “The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin Goes to the Movies”

  1. cheeky May 14, 2014 at 6:56 AM #

    I remember reading this book because James Baldwin was one of my favorite authors back in the high school (in the mid ’80’s. I read everything I could get my hand on by him and read practically every film book I could get my hands on too, so both these interests dovetailed with this book, you could say. Good choice to write about,because I do recall a lot of the stuff you pointed out from the book. You might have already read these other good books about black authors critically examining film—-Reel To Real:Race,Sex, and Class at the Movies by Bell Hooks, for example and her other book, Black Looks: Race and Representation

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