The Devil Finds Work (1976) James Baldwin
Paperback, 127 pages
We should pay close attention to any book that begins with an adoration of Joan Crawford and ends with The Exorcist (1973). More importantly, we should pay attention to works that examine classic cinema from a fresh viewpoint, possibly a viewpoint we have never before considered. Perhaps that viewpoint will teach us something about cinema. Perhaps it will teach us something about ourselves.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote novels, plays, essays, and more, but he was also a movie lover. The Devil Finds Work is a long, masterful essay that encompasses not only his experiences in watching classic movies, but also explores how those films touch on our history, our ideas of race, our loves, fears, rage, our very souls. This is why movies matter.
The Devil Finds Work certainly explores classic cinema from the eyes of a black man, but it does so much more. As a young boy, Baldwin saw Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) and was mesmerized by her face, her manner, the way she moved. When he discovered a black woman that reminded him of Crawford, young Baldwin was attracted to her face, her movement, her joy. Cinema is life. But it’s not always a truthful life.
Baldwin soon began to see and understand the differences between what he saw on the screen and what he witnessed on the streets of Harlem. Baldwin recalls, after watching A Tale of Two Cities (1935):
Dickens has not seen it (the sense of the oppressed) at all. The wretched of the earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their only weapon against life, life is all that they have (p. 16).
Even when African-Americans were represented onscreen, their roles were usually disappointing to Baldwin, including actors such as Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, and Manton Moreland, “all of whom, rightly or wrongly, I loathed. It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it…” (p. 20) Oddly enough, 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” (p. 21). Baldwin could relate to the Sylvia Sidney character Jo Graham in You Only Live Once (1937), her strength in the midst of desperation, her hunger for survival. That was the world he knew.
Baldwin soon figured out Hollywood very quickly. Referring to stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, or John Wayne, Baldwin writes, “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be” (p. 30). Those actors, suggests Baldwin, are trapped, never allowed to really inhabit or become real characters, just rehash their own personas. Yet for audiences who adore these actors, their films become the public’s fantasies, their dreams.
It is inevitable that Baldwin tackles the big movies dealing with racism, spending a significant amount of time on arguably the most notorious of such films: D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) before moving on to later titles like The Defiant Ones (1958), In Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), to name just a few. With each of these titles, Baldwin understands and articulates the problems with these films from an African-American perspective. Baldwin states that In the Heat of the Night “moves from one preposterous proposition to another” (p. 53), then moves on to the well-meaning The Defiant Ones, “which suggests the truth it can neither face nor articulate” (p. 65), then Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a film “meant to blind one to its essential inertia and despair” (p. 71). Is it significant that all three of these films star Sidney Poitier?
Although each of these films (and others) contain problematic elements for Baldwin, he also sees in them a different form of tension, “something strangling, alive, struggling to get out” (p. 58). That something is the truth of the black experience expressed in film. Baldwin clearly loved movies, and in this extended essay, he challenges us to rethink many of the films so familiar to us that we’ve taken them (and our interpretations of them) for granted for decades.
When you pick up The Devil Finds Work, be prepared to be challenged. Be ready to listen to a voice you perhaps have never heard before. Expect to think about why you react the way you do to certain films. Think deeper, from different points of view. You may never look at The Exorcist the same way again. And if you think it’s odd that Baldwin chooses to close his book with an examination of this film, consider that at one time Baldwin considered going into the ministry.
Also let us not forget that Baldwin was a brilliant writer, a truth that is clearly evident in this short book. It is one I hope you will experience.
This review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!
Photos: Penguin Random House, Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog