James Baldwin, Zadie Smith and Sidney Poitier write with insight and knowledge about movies.
I have been long waited to read James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, a collection of critical essays on cinema that interrogate the racist ideology of landmark American films such as In the Heat of the Night, The Defiant Ones, The Birth of a Nation, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is a special kind of memoir, one related to the movies the writer watched and influenced his life. It is social commentary that has a starting point the movies and it is all the more poignant as the themes approached here are still, to some extent, current and common in America. Baldwin finds deeper meanings in cinema, and indeed that is what cinema is partly about, and his view will certainly change your perspective on every movie he is writing about to some degree. That’s how incisive and witty James Baldwin’s writing is. His clarity and burst of vision in addressing pop culture, racial and social issues from a very personal vantage point is striking.
And although his view on cinema is pessimistic and bleak and he upsets me with some truths, there are certain passages – describing, for example, Sylvia Sidney as “the only American 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”; or Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, “and yet, even at that, recognized, in Sidney’s face, at the very end, as he sings Sewing Machine, something noble, true and terrible, something out of which we come…” – which gives you hope in the complexity of cinema, and which I think gave him hope, too, in cinema.
That’s important to me, because I do love movies and I always look for something more in movies than social commentary or universally propagated truths. The creative orchestration, a director’s particular vision, and empathy and emotion rather than information are what first and foremost attract me to the movie world. So after reading The Devil Finds Work, I turned to Sidney Poitier’s memoir, The Measure of a Man, looking for his own perspective on a few of the movies Baldwin criticises and in which Poitier had appeared.
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones”, 1958, directed by Stanley Kramer| Stanley Kramer Productions
The Measure of a Man, by Sidney Poitier
In one of the chapters in The Measure of a Man, titled “Why Do White Folks Love Sidney Poitier So?” (after an article by the same name published in The New York Times in the 70s), the actor writes about the disdain he caused back in the day for not being more confrontational, in a time when new voices were speaking for African-Americans, in real life, but also in movies, “for playing exemplary human beings”, “for playing roles that were not threatening to white audiences, for playing the ‘noble Negro’ who fulfills white liberal fantasies.” He defends Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for example, insisting on just how revolutionary it was in the context of its time. He continues to say that there’s a place for people who are angry and defiant, and sometimes they serve a purpose, but that’s never been his role. Social movement doesn’t come all at once. It takes small steps, and I think his movies recorded exactly that. His life as an actor and his roles were unique in Hollywood and they did not reflect the reality of black people in everyday America, and that is exactly why they did their job well: preparing the audiences and the American society step by step for change.
Poitier draws on the huge cultural shift in the ten year period between making The Defiant Ones, in 1958, and making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love, all three latter films released in 1967. “A filmmaker such as Stanley Kramer was an artistic wedge during that period, but art doesn’t solve social problems. It’s a reminder, it’s an irritant, it clarifies, it focuses, but it doesn’t solve. Potential solutions were ignored until America was forced to confront them.” I think that’s a powerful statement and which does justice to his films. Maybe the film didn’t sit well with some audiences, black or white, and it certainly didn’t sit well with James Baldwin, but that was the director’s vision for the film and Sidney defends both the director and the film, saying that Stanley Kramer’s message in The Defiant Ones was that “all people are fundamentally the same. Our differences are, for the most part, cosmetic.” And he calls the ending of the film a message of tolerance that has stood up pretty well for many decades. I think that too.
During filming In the Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier recounts a scene that he insisted that the director should change. At one point, his character, a detective from Philadelphia, accidentally pulled into a murder investigation in a small town in the Deep South, goes to question an influential local business man and interrogates him about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. The man slaps detective Tibbs. In the original script, Sidney says that “Tibbs looked at him with great disdain and, wrapped in my strong ideals, walked out. That could have happened with another actor playing that part, but it couldn’t happen with me. I could too easily remember that Miami night with the gun pointed to my forehead.”
He is referring to an incident that had occurred to him when he was sixteen and living in Miami and late one night he was stranded in a white middle-class neighborhood. He was accosted by a police car and they put the gun to his head and the only reason why he got out of there alive was because he put his head down and made to promise that he would go home without ever looking back once. Yes, he was angry, and it was inhuman and unjust what happened, but he knew that he could only stay alive through discipline and toughness of mind. But 24 years later, when In the Heat of the Night was made, he felt the script needed to be changed and he told the director, Norman Jewison, that Tibbs should get to whack the man right back across the face. And that’s how it is in the movie. The times had changed, Sidney Poitier had changed, and mentalities had started to change, too.
Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night”, 1967, directed by Norman Jewison | The Mirisch Corporation
Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith
Another collection of essays, Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind is split into five sections: Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling and Remembering. She writes about books and movies, about family and philosophy, about British comedians and Hollywood icons. I love Zadie Smith’s writing. I like the intelligence, the humour, the vibrancy, but, most importantly, I like the comprehensibility of her essays. That’s why I am usually sensitive to film criticism. I often feel that film critics do not love movies. A pretencious stylist must not be mistaken for a connoisseur. I stormed through Zadie’s essays on cinema. They are so personal and passionate. Because you don’t experience a film just for the duration of its 90-minute running time. You experience it in relation to your entire life and being. And there is another thing: Zadie has an open mind towards cinema. It’s clear that she starts watching a film with an open mind. It’s natural that she doesn’t like every film she watches. And I like that she still writes about it in a sympathetic way. Again, it’s the behaviour of a film lover who understands film, not of a film critic.
About Katharine Hepburn, she writes: “The kind of woman she played, the kind of woman she was, is still the kind of woman I should like to be, and an incidental line of hers, from the aforementioned The Philadelphia Story, remains my lodestar every time I pick up a pen to write anything all: ‘The time to make up your mind up about people is never!’”
And in her essay on Visconti’s Bellissima and Anna Magnani, Smith writes: “Bellissima is that rare thing in Italian cinema: a film in which the woman is not a question posed to a man. Even more rare: she is not in question to herself. She finds herself perfectly satisfactory, or at least, her flaws cause her no more than the normal amount of discomfort. A less common trait in a female movie star can hardly be imagined.”
Incidently, James Baldwin, Zadie Smith and Sidney Poitier all talk about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and each one’s view, one negative, the other ones positive, is different. A movie is different for each one of us. That’s the beauty of cinema.
John Howard, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story”, 1940, directed by George Cukor| MGM