Of Latitudes Unknown
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Of Latitudes Unknown

James Baldwin's Radical Imagination

Alice Mikal Craven, William E. Dow, Yoko Nakamura, Alice Mikal Craven, William E. Dow, Yoko Nakamura

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eBook - ePub

Of Latitudes Unknown

James Baldwin's Radical Imagination

Alice Mikal Craven, William E. Dow, Yoko Nakamura, Alice Mikal Craven, William E. Dow, Yoko Nakamura

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About This Book

Of Latitudes Unknown is a multi-faceted study of James Baldwin's radical imagination. It is a selective and thoughtful survey that re-investigates the grounds of Baldwin studies and provides new critical approaches, subjects, and orientations for Baldwin criticism. This volume joins recent critical collections in "un-fragmenting" Baldwin and establishing further conjunctions in his work: the essay and the novel; the polemical and the aesthetic; his use of and participation in visual forms; and his American as well as international identities. But it goes beyond other recent studies by focusing on new entities of Baldwin's radical imagination: his English and French language selves; his late encounters with Africa; his appearances on French television and interviews with French journalists; and his unrecognized literary journalism. Of Latitudes Unknown also addresses Baldwin's relations with the Arab world, his anticipation of contemporary film and media studies, and his paradoxical public intellectualism. As it reassesses Baldwin's contributions to and influences on world literary history, Of Latitudes Unknown equally explores why the critical appreciation of Baldwin's writing continues to flourish, and why it remains a vast territory whose parts lie open to much deeper exploration and elaboration.

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James Baldwin: Film, Photography, and the Visual Arts
Black Bodies on Screen, White Privilege in Hollywood: James Baldwin on Lang and Preminger
Alice Mikal Craven
Condescension towards black American actors and actresses has long been attributed to the unconscious patronage and sense of white privilege that grounded the early filmmaking techniques of classical Hollywood cinema.1 Blacks were systematically discriminated against and relegated to the category of the “Other.” James Baldwin’s study of the émigré directors Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger is therefore an intriguing experiment in providing a new form of “Other,” namely, the émigré directors and their alien perspectives on Hollywood’s depictions of black American lives. By analyzing these directors’ responses to their assimilation into Hollywood studio filmmaking, Baldwin explores the gratuitous nature of American racism in the film industry.2 On one hand, Baldwin views Lang as having initially used American narratives and genres as exploratory allegories of the German racial tensions from which he had fled (Devil 27). On the other hand, Baldwin argues that Preminger fundamentally underestimated the prejudices against American blacks when making his films Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959). I focus in this chapter on the émigré directors’ purported intentions in their American work and the place of Baldwin’s interpretations of their work in his innovative film criticism. The Devil Finds Work (1976), “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough” (1955), and “On Catfish Row” (1959) are revelatory examples of Baldwin’s critique of Hollywood.3 The “othered” perspective offered by Lang and Preminger is not lost on Baldwin, and it allows him to nuance his critique of the American film industry’s use of white supremacist mythologies and its abuse of black performers. The time span between the early essays and the later publication of Devil is also noteworthy. Baldwin’s writings on film matured between 1955 and 1976. The parallels between his film critique and the positions he takes up in his more politically charged works such as “Many Thousands Gone” and The Fire Next Time are important concerns for this chapter as well.
Lang and Preminger both came to Hollywood in the 1930s shortly after the rise of the Hitler regime.4 Unlike directors such as Jean Renoir, their films engaged with American settings and themes from the outset. Renoir was initially hired in Hollywood to make films about French culture for American audiences until he rebelled and insisted that he was more interested in engaging with the narratives and genres of his newly adopted country.5 Of the three, Lang was the least constrained by his studio contracts and had even formed his own production company, Diana Productions, by 1945 (Gunning 286).
Hollywood cinematic language was routinely placed in opposition to the European art house techniques in which these émigré directors were trained, as Thomas Elsaesser has argued in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Producers in Hollywood contradicted their own filmmaking preferences when they welcomed renowned European directors to America. In their view, directors such as Lang added a cultural veneer to their studios, though their art house techniques were still frowned upon as ultimately unsuitable for an industry driven by box office results. Production studios tended to favor techniques that reinforced the supremacist myths so endemic to the Hollywood system. Ironically, this was done at times in order to adhere to the moral guides of the Hays Code. As Gunning points out in particular, the ending of Lang’s You Only Live Once was “demanded by the Production Code which would not have permitted the criminals to reach their refuge across the border” (258). Studios also had control over which films would be made and what their final cuts would yield. Filmmakers working in America and certainly in Hollywood usually worked under contract. It is therefore crucial to distinguish how each of these directors adapted their European filmmaking techniques when addressing American material and to gauge how they intuited the privilege of whiteness informing the studio world to which they were being introduced.
Émigré directors were often faulted for their inauthentic portraits of American life or for their failure to adhere to the moral demands of Hollywood filmmaking according to the directives of the Hays Code, such as the interdiction to portray interracial relationships on screen.6 Prominent African American film director Charles Burnett nonetheless praised Renoir for his film The Southerner due to its balanced representation of blacks and whites. Though the film was banned in Memphis as an inauthentic and damaging portrait of the South, Burnett considered it to be a rare and honest portrayal of southern poverty for both blacks and whites (Finger; Kapsis 157). In a similar manner, Lang was recognized by Baldwin as a careful student of American identity politics in You Only Live Once. Preminger, though lauded by many for his direct challenges to the Hays Code and for other aspects of his Hollywood films, was by contrast condemned by Baldwin for his seeming lack of concern about the realities of black life in America (Champlin).
Fairly or not, Baldwin portrays Preminger as a foreigner on vacation unperturbed by how his films misrepresented the lives of African Americans, which intensifies the need to distinguish Preminger’s own intent from his need to adhere to studio demands. The production histories of both Carmen and Porgy and Bess make it difficult to entirely condone Baldwin’s negative views of Preminger’s involvement in the filmmaking processes. At times, his work was controlled by the conditions of his studio contract, and in the case of Porgy and Bess, he was brought in as director very late when many of the decisions about the production had already been made by others. Producer Samuel Goldwyn gave his permission for Preminger to make some changes but a lot of details, such as casting, had already been determined (Preminger 151).
In Baldwin’s defense, there has been much discussion of the racist leanings of the films in question. According to Chris Fujiwara, Sidney Poitier tried to avoid being cast in Porgy and Bess because he considered it to be a racist script, but he gave in so that he could also later be considered for a role in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones (Fujiwara, location 4147). Yet, despite the claims about the racist tendencies of Porgy and Bess, Baldwin ultimately seemed more interested in exploring how émigré directors might embrace white privilege without being fully aware that they were doing so. A careful study of Baldwin’s essays suggests that the real culprit was the system itself rather than the perspectives of one individual director. Did these foreign directors fully perceive the embedded supremacist myths of their newly adopted country and its culture industry?7
According to Baldwin, Preminger was simply not interested in deconstructing the racially inflected meanings beneath the surface of his source material. In “On Catfish Row,” Baldwin argues that Preminger, along with Goldwyn and the film’s white audience, was not concerned with the fates of the real inhabitants of Catfish Row. Preminger did, however, see these films as star vehicles for Dorothy Dandridge, to whom he played a strong and disciplined Pygmalion (Boyd 235). Dandridge, who plays Carmen in Carmen Jones and also Bess in Porgy and Bess, was the first African American actress to grace the cover of Life magazine and to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (Bogle 242). Many, including Dandridge herself, attributed her star status to her willingness to be allied with Preminger’s all-black cast filmmaking (246). Her rapid ascent to fame was quickly extinguished when she was found in 1965, at the age of forty-one, victim of an overdose and equally of the negative press that ensued (248). Donald Bogle’s book-length biography of Dandridge has thankfully restored her reputation in a way that is worthy of her beauty and her talent. Though Preminger was never faulted for her early demise, he was the one who triggered her rise to stardom. As Bogle points out, her eventual inability to distinguish between her real life and the tragic but erotic mulatto she had been hired to play on screen no doubt precipitated her fall (247).
Preminger seemed mesmerized by the impact of black bodies on screen and thus Dandridge was a perfect foil for his filmmaking plans. But since he was not particularly invested in a study of racism in the United States, these tensions functioned as inconveniences or obstacles to his filmmaking vision more than anything else. According to Baldwin, Preminger’s failure to recognize the depth of American racism made him less aware of how endemic the condescension toward blacks in Hollywood was. As Baldwin remarks about Carmen, “The fact that one is watching a Negro cast interpreting Carmen is used to justify their remarkable vacuity, their complete improbability, their total divorce from anything suggestive of Negro life” (“Carmen Jones” 49).
Preminger was nonetheless instrumental in challenging the dictates of the Hays Code and its racist tendencies, and therefore Baldwin’s condemnation of his films needs to be considered in light of his overall legacy (Champlin). Baldwin’s critique of Preminger is not an entirely balanced judgment of Preminger’s talents as an émigré director in Hollywood, but it does raise the specter of white appropriation of black suffering in ways that Lang’s work does not. In the final analysis, however, Baldwin’s condemnation of Preminger is rooted in Baldwin’s own sense of purpose when considering how Hollywood narratives maintain their stronghold on white privilege and on the white supremacist mythologies that ground American cinematic language. It is in the contrast between Baldwin’s positive assessment of Lang and his overwhelmingly negative assessment of Preminger that Baldwin’s critique of Hollywood’s ethical practices can be made more precise.
The American justice system and black life
Due to Lang’s close attention to the mechanics of the American justice system and to how it functioned within the gangster genre, the director serves Baldwin’s larger purpose well. Though he praises the director for his astute grasp of the realities of American life, Baldwin nonetheless claims in Devil that Lang did not really “find his American feet” until he made the film You Only Live Once in 1937 (27). Baldwin argues that Lang’s first film in America, Fury (1936), was still focused on trying to use American genres and plotlines to deconstruct the racial tensions of his native Germany. As Baldwin notes on the subject of Fury: “Lang’s is the fury of the film: but his grasp of the texture of American life is still extremely weak: he has not yet really left Germany” (Devil 27). Preminger’s grasp of American culture is a much more complicated affair, according to Baldwin. Baldwin’s assessment of American identity politics in Preminger’s films makes him unwilling to afford the filmmaker the time to find American feet. Baldwin’s critique of Carmen Jones nonetheless targets Twentieth-Century Fox rather than Preminger, who is directly evoked only twice in the essay. Baldwin’s later critique of Porgy and Bess targets Preminger more directly and more harshly.
Baldwin condemns Carmen’s abuse of African American identities and black bodies and suggests that Preminger is implicated in this film’s unfortunate representation of black lives. He argues that if the Negroes in Carmen are to be taken as ciphers of American sexual mores, then all is lost since “when people have become this empty they are not ciphers any longer, but monsters” (“Carmen Jones” 54). This seemingly throwaway line suggests that Baldwin’s critique of Carmen is in line with his earlier works, including the essay “Many Thousands Gone” where he suggests that Richard Wright’s novel Native Son has shown its readers the monster created by the American Republic, that is, the characterization of the Negro who lives inside each and every black American (41). Baldwin’s objections to Wright’s characterization of Bigger derives from a similar argument: Bigger is finally a symbolic monster, representative of America’s abuse of blacks and of its white guilt rather than a depiction of an authentic human being.
That Baldwin places his critique of Carmen in the same section of Notes of a Native Son as his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” is telling if read in this light. The placement suggests that Baldwin’s critique of Hollywood is linked in complex ways to his critique of racial politics from the beginning, and this critique becomes fully realized in Devil. Highlighting the steps he takes along the way helps in contextualizing Devil. By the time he writes “On Catfish Row” in 1959, Baldwin has been wounded by the untimely death of Billie Holiday, and he is therefore more eager to chastise filmmakers coming from outside of black American life for their romanticizing of the miserable lives of the black Americans they depict. As Baldwin remarks, “Out of one Catfish Row or another came the murdered Bessie Smith and the dead Billie Holiday and virtually every Negro performer this country has produced” (“On Catfish Row”).
Baldwin thus approaches the work of the foreign directors at different stages in his own career and uses these analyses in order to evaluate alien or “othered” perspectives on American culture. Baldwin is concerned with how the American mythologies that he explores throughout his works have been absorbed differently by these outsiders. On another level, his essay on Carmen is in keeping with his youthful book reviews written around the same time. These early reviews were directed against authors such as James M. Cain and Wright, and were unsparingly harsh. As David Leeming notes, Baldwin was still approaching “his subject with the insensitivity of a young writer determined to shock” in his early career (64). His essay on Carmen displays this youthful bravado as well. His later film critique is written with more genuine concern about Hollywood’s ability to divide and conquer black and white audiences in America.
In the interim, Baldwin intensifies his critique of Preminger’s work in his 1959 review of Porgy and Bess, which appeared a few years before he wrote and published The Fire Next Time (1963). At this later point in his career, Baldwin’s fears about Hollywood’s insensitivity to black American life have deepened. His critique of America’s inability to use its own past to confront its racial conflicts will control his message in Fire, and we see that same critique applied to the Hollywood industry thirteen years later in Devil. In many ways, the death of Billie Holiday just one month before the opening of Porgy and Bess in theaters serves as a pivotal moment in Baldwin’s decision to link American sociopolitical concerns with his analysis of the American moviegoer.
Baldwin remarks that it was precisely the real-life version of Porgy and Bess’s cardboard and romanticized ghetto setting that was the cause of Billie Holiday’s demise. Leeming suggests that Preminger’s blithe comparison of Hollywood lies to the reality of black Americans deeply angered Baldwin (164). Leeming also notes that Baldwin’s essay “On Catfish Row” began as a critique of Porgy and Bess but was deliberately transformed by Baldwin into a lament about the tragic life and death of Billie Holiday (164). Baldwin does not fault the material of the opera itself, since he claims that the vitality of the narrative is owed to the author of the original source mater...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Halftitle Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Contents 
  5. Foreword: The Death of the Prophet
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction: Baldwin’s Radical Imagination
  8. Part One: James Baldwin: Film, Photography, and the Visual Arts
  9. Part Two: Baldwin’s Journalism and Literary Journalism
  10. Part Three: Baldwin Re-Sighted Transnationally
  11. Part Four: James Baldwin and Changing Communities: Recontextualizing Baldwin’s Legacy
  12. Contributors
  13. Index
  14. Imprint
Citation styles for Of Latitudes Unknown

APA 6 Citation

Craven, A. M., Dow, W., & Nakamura, Y. (2019). Of Latitudes Unknown (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/869806/of-latitudes-unknown-james-baldwins-radical-imagination-pdf (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Craven, Alice Mikal, William Dow, and Yoko Nakamura. (2019) 2019. Of Latitudes Unknown. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/869806/of-latitudes-unknown-james-baldwins-radical-imagination-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Craven, A. M., Dow, W. and Nakamura, Y. (2019) Of Latitudes Unknown. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/869806/of-latitudes-unknown-james-baldwins-radical-imagination-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Craven, Alice Mikal, William Dow, and Yoko Nakamura. Of Latitudes Unknown. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.