Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970) can be streamed on MUBI for free June 18-19, 2021 at mubi.com/free.
In Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970) director Terence Dixon sets out to portray Baldwin as a writer rather than a political figure. To do so he devises what he termed “a system and scheme” to project Baldwin, focusing on his literary relationship with Paris, where Baldwin lived for the first nine years of his newly flourishing career. It’s a formula that lends itself to cinematic articulation, with elegant vignettes of the city—its symmetrical streets, the River Seine and the Bastille—poetic in their accompaniment to Baldwin’s lacerating prose. However, as cinematographer Jack Hazan recalls, “Things did not go to plan,” for Baldwin swiftly disabuses the filmmakers—Hazan and Dixon—of the fallacy that they are the most influential element in the documentary mix.
From the outset Baldwin eschews the narrow label of “writer” and the notion that the political can be divorced from the aesthetic. Instead, he states prosaically “I am not so much a writer as I am a citizen and I’ve got to bear witness to something I know.” What he knows and what he speaks to is “being a Black man in the middle of the century;” he reasons he “could be Bobby Seale, [he] could be Angela Davis, [he] could be Medgar Evers.” Dixon, endeavoring to steer matters back onto his own directorial course, trenchantly rejects this, insisting Baldwin could not be any of these figures, for he is superlatively “a writer.”
Yet Baldwin remains steadfast in his convictions, perhaps because he was accustomed to contesting pigeonholes. When he delivered the manuscript of his second book Giovanni’s Room (1956) to his agent and publisher Knopf, they urged him to abandon it due to its exclusively white cast and explicit concern with homosexuality. Instead, they advised Baldwin to come up with another “Negro” novel that could be marketed as such, declaring that he was “a Negro writer and (he) would reach a very special audience… And [he] would be dead if [he] alienated that audience.”
Baldwin sacked his agent and left Knopf for the smaller, less prestigious Dial Press where the novel was published. It was met with reproach for precisely the reasons its initial detractors feared, with Black critics finding fault with its unrelenting focus on white characters. It was a focus that sociologist Orlando Patterson deemed a betrayal to Baldwin’s race and that prompted American writer Amiri Baraka to pronounce Baldwin as so anti-Black that were “he turned white there would be more noise from him”—a statement he later withdrew as infantile. But Baldwin continued to write about the universal subjects that captivated him; refusing to be dictated to on the terms of his life or literature.
Baldwin’s characteristic tenacity finds its way into Meeting the Man and, when combined with Dixon’s dogged insistence on his own artistic vision, the result is a palpable tension, with Dixon’s attitude to documentary filmmaking—his predetermined concept and a voice-of-God style narration—jarring and at times offending Baldwin and indeed our contemporary eye.
Dixon’s approach is perhaps best situated within a Griersonian tradition which, though opposed to self-absorption, fundamentally regards documentary films as the expressions of their makers, allowing a director absolute control over its processes. It’s a tradition that has been criticized for a variety of reasons not least because it denies cinematic subjects’ agency over their portrayal—an issue of which Baldwin seems acutely aware. Indeed, Baldwin was well-versed in cinema’s hazardous apparatus. His professional incursion into Hollywood, though brief, was by all accounts volatile: in 1968 he reluctantly agreed to write the script for Spike Lee’s Malcom X biopic with the proviso that he would do so “My way or not at all”—a position Hollywood moguls ultimately found unworkable. And so, for a time the result was “not at all,” as Baldwin’s script, sold to Warner Brothers, was buried, only revived and realized by Lee in 1992 when Malcom X was finally released, five years after Baldwin’s death.
Dispirited by his Hollywood experience, Baldwin abandoned screenwriting for good, later announcing “I would rather be horse whipped or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue than repeat that adventure.” Yet, cinema maintained a central role in his fiction and rhetoric. In Giovanni’s Room Giovanni, the novel’s titular character and Guillaume, the owner of the bar Giovanni works at, meet in a cinema, whilst Another Country opens with protagonist Rufus “sitting in the movies” where he watches or more precisely drifts through an Italian film. In his famous 1965 proposition speech for “The American Dream is at expense of the Negro” delivered at the Cambridge Union, England, Baldwin draws upon The Plainsman (1936) to animate the experience of evolving in a nation violently pitted against him, intoning “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, the Indians are you.”
Baldwin’s identification with and against cinematic characters and plots is most copiously investigated in his book-length essay The Devil Finds Work (1965), excerpts of which are articulated with striking effect in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016). Here Baldwin fuses a hermeneutic approach to film theory with his own testimonies of movie-going to challenge the underlying assumptions that govern American cinematic expectations. He analyzes a range of mostly American films, released from the early 1930s through to the late 1970s, including In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Exorcist (1973).
Forcefully critiquing cinematic portrayals of Black characters and cross-racial relationships, Baldwin maintains that “cinema is the language of our dreams” and that America’s dreams sanction, propound and propel mythologies of white supremacy, purity and historical innocence. He understands, for example, how racial hierarchies are reinforced by the inclusion of stock black characters, such as maids who advocate against “members of [their] own race getting above himself” in the ultra-notorious Birth of a Nation (1915) and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He demonstrates how certain black roles, such that of Noah Cullen, played by Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958), absolve white liberal guilt: when Cullen, a prison fugitive, jumps, in comradery with his white companion, from the train that would be his escape, Poitier’s character falsely assures white audiences of their own magnanimity. He reveals the most terrifying aspect of The Exorcist (1973) to be its presentation of evil as banal, hysterical and fundamentally incomprehensible, a blatant mistruth given that white Americans understand the enaction of evil all too well.
What The Devil Finds Work makes acutely apparent is that, although Baldwin relished film, he shrewdly understood the film camera as a fraught mechanism that lethally upholds the social terror and violence wrought by America’s white population on its Black one. It’s a text that illuminates Baldwin’s perceived “hostility” to Dixon’s vision as fueled by what Baldwin knows—and knows well—of cinema’s potential coercivity and broader racial injustices. As if to impart this knowledge to Dixon, Baldwin brings him to the Bastille where he explains its significance.
“They tore down this prison. That was a great event in European history and Europe understands that… I am trying to tear a prison down too. That event does not yet occur in the European imagination… When a white man tears down a prison, he is trying to liberate himself. When I tear down a prison, I am simply another savage. What you don’t understand is that you for me are my prison guard, you are my warden. I am battling you, not you Terry, but you the English, you the French.”
Baldwin gestures to a young Black student—one of several who accompany him during filming—and tells Dixon, “Because he looks the way he looks and for no other reason, he could be dead in the morning. That isn’t true of you.”
It’s this inescapable reality that means Baldwin cannot commit himself to Dixon’s directorial vision: their racial power dynamics and loaded documenter/documented relationship make compliance impossible. Instead, Baldwin is compelled to mobilize his voice as “one of the very few [of] dark people” to testify to something much grimmer: the brutal persecution of Black people within and beyond his nation’s borders. It’s this persecution which prompted Baldwin’s emigration to France in the first place—a decision that he describes as a “matter of life and death” for, he recalls “‘I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in Paris, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.” His friend was Eugene Worth whose death by suicide haunted Baldwin throughout his life and was mirrored in that of Rufus, the tragic hero of Another Country.
The scene at the Bastille marks a pivotal point in Meeting the Man because it represents a change in the film’s direction. In a bid to resolve the quarrel between Dixon and himself Baldwin identifies an alternative structure for the proceedings, declaring that he must “talk to somebody if we are to get this movie done.” Dixon accepts this change in approach and films Baldwin in the Paris studio of painter Beauford Delaney whom Baldwin first visited in Greenwich Village at the age of 16 and regarded as the “the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” Here Baldwin, in dialogue with Delaney and a number of young Black students, speaks about America, his politics, his relocation to Paris and about the joy elicited from sharing his work. And although he remains incensed, Baldwin finds an ease with the camera, the result of which is that another more affectionate and open side of his character airs in his voicing of his love for the people around him.
And so, a metamorphosis occurs, with Meeting the Man shifting from an expressive to an observational mode. It’s this change that makes the documentary so remarkable; its success ultimately deriving from Baldwin’s refusal to concede to another’s direction and the director’s eventual deference to this refusal.