On November 11, 1948, James Baldwin boarded a ship in New York that would take him across the Atlantic. Decades later, in an interview that ran in a 1984 issue of the Paris Review,Jordan Elgrably asked him why. “I was broke,” said Baldwin. “I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York.” A deal for a first novel that would eventually be published in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, had fallen through. He’d received a fellowship for another book that was never realized, but gave the funds to his family before he left the country.
But money, of course, was not the only motivation. He was a Black man in mid-twentieth-century America and, having had affairs with both men and women, he was still unsure of his sexual identity. “I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a n****r, and I knew what was going to happen to me,” he told Elgrably. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.” How did he end up in Paris, wondered Elgrably. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America.”
Baldwin lived in Paris for thirteen years, and then spent a decade in Istanbul before eventually settling down in a modest villa in St. Paul de Vence, a quiet town on the French Riviera. For one week, starting Friday, New York’s Film Forum will present James Baldwin Abroad, a program of three recently restored short films that reaffirm Baldwin’s often-repeated observation that he didn’t really see the United States until he took a long hard look from the outside.
The program moves in reverse chronological order, beginning with Sedat Pakay’s James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973). This “cinematic gem records the writer’s movements through the city of Istanbul over a three-day period in May 1970 and frames [Baldwin] with seductive photography of private interiors, city streets, and a boat ride on the Bosphorus,” wrote Magdalena J. Zaborowska in her 2009 book James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile. “Like no other existing documentary, the black-and-white film captures the profound paradox of Baldwin’s transatlantic vantage point by showing how he both belongs and remains an outsider in the teeming half-European, half-Asian Turkish metropolis.”
Baldwin was in a relatively good place at the time and got along well with Pakay, a Turkish photographer and filmmaker who had shot or would soon shoot portraits of Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, and Gordon Parks. The making of Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971) was a little more contentious. Moving from one landmark in the French capital to the next, Baldwin occasionally snapped at British director Terence Dixon and cinematographer Jack Hazan (A Bigger Splash,Rude Boy).
Screening Meeting the Man during its 2020 edition, the New York Film Festival pulled a quote from Hazan: “Things don’t go to plan for him and the film crew when a couple of young Black Vietnam draft dodgers impose themselves on the American. Baldwin wrestles with being a role model to the Black youths, denouncing Western colonialism and crimes against African Americans while at the same time demonstrating his mastery and understanding of the culture he supposedly despises.”
The final film in the program, Baldwin’s N****r (1968), takes us to a lively conversation between Baldwin and comedian and activist Dick Gregory in front of a live, mostly Black audience at the West Indian Student Centre in London. The director is Horace Ové, who was a few years away from making a landmark of Black British cinema, Pressure (1976). As Richard Brody notes in the New Yorker, at one point in the film, Baldwin “cites the urgency of learning the ‘actual history’ of the United States and Europe—a concept that was as daring and controversial then as it is now.”
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