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A writer, activist, and public intellectual, James Baldwin also frequently collaborated on documentary film projects and sought to write and direct his own feature films. But of all the projects that made it to the screen, Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE (1982) is the most ambitious and, perhaps, the closest to Baldwin’s own vision for film: using the medium to tell intimate stories with serious political stakes, in ways not typically seen in mainstream media.

In 1980, as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter hit the campaign trail, Baldwin began his own road trip. Ostensibly on assignment for “The New Yorker”, and planning to write a book, too, Baldwin traversed the South to reflect on the gains and the stagnation of the civil rights movement. The husband-and-wife team of Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley accompanied him with a small film crew, recording Baldwin’s six-week journey and the hours of conversations he had along the way. GRAPEVINE was the result.

Inspired by Baldwin’s book “No Name in the Street”, Fontaine envisioned GRAPEVINE as a “Baldwin essay on film.” The film’s thesis is, essentially, that only superficial changes have occurred. Time and again, Baldwin expresses the feeling that he’s only been gone from the South for a few minutes and has reentered the same conversations he was having in the 1960s. At one point, he reflects that “It is very bitter to have fought so hard for the vote only to enter the system and realize there is nothing to vote for,” a stinging critique given the television footage of Carter’s and Reagan’s campaigns that we see Baldwin watching periodically throughout the film. As Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. writes in his recent book “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own”, Baldwin is preoccupied with “the complex relationship between history and memory … as he witnessed the country’s zealous embrace of Reaganism. So much was being willfully forgotten at a breathtaking pace, and just as much was being relived.” Fontaine initially pitched the film to Baldwin as a funded research trip, but it soon became much more, as Baldwin realized the power of telling this story in moving images.

An intensely personal film

The film’s historical consciousness develops through a series of visual juxtapositions, tacking between 1960s documentary footage, contemporary 1980s scenes, and intimate conversations between Baldwin and his longtime friends. Sometimes, the historical footage is intentionally jarring, as when a white sheriff calmly describes to television audiences the use of electric cattle prods on protestors. At other times, GRAPEVINE’s editing emphasizes the seamless transitions between time periods, for example cutting, mid-sentence, from the activist Oretha Castle Haley speaking in 1980 to finish her thought with a speech she delivered in the 1960s as president of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). These visual effects and the film’s elegiac lyricism are tightly tied to Baldwin’s own running commentary and his bodily performance: it is very much his film. In a conversation between Baldwin and the civil rights activist James Meredith that was not included in the final film, Baldwin contrasted GRAPEVINE to his attempt in the late 1960s to write a film about Malcolm X. Speaking of GRAPEVINE, Baldwin declared, “the whole thing has been done from my perspective.”

Indeed, GRAPEVINE is an intensely personal film, and it experiments with how to use such personal experiences to interpret history. It opens with Baldwin at his desk, paging through a book of documentary photographs, and as Glaude writes, “One can see the slight smile on Baldwin’s face or the furrow of his brow as he pauses to look at a photo. He feels the images.” Then Baldwin reflects, in voiceover: “It was 1957 when I left Paris for Little Rock. 1957. This is 1980, and how many years is that? Nearly a quarter of a century. And what has happened to all those people, children I knew then, and what has happened to this country, and what does this mean for the world? What does this mean for me?” Baldwin’s reflection on his photo album is metonymic of GRAPEVINE as a whole: the film effectively sets those photographs in motion, treating them as a bridge between times rather than as remnants of a fundamentally different past.

GRAPEVINE was also a family affair. Fontaine told me in a recent interview that his close friendship with Baldwin’s brother David “made a difference” for the author, who was initially “a bit reluctant” to trust a white British filmmaker, and once on the road, Baldwin found a kindred spirit in Fontaine’s wife Hartley, a Black New Yorker. “He cared about us,” Fontaine recalled. “Whether or not we were going to survive [as an interracial couple].” And in the film itself, Baldwin visits Bunkie, Louisiana, his stepfather’s birthplace, where he encounters, apparently for the first time, a photograph of his stepfather’s half-brother, whose father was the white master of the house. “It was strange to see, in effect, your father in whiteface,” Baldwin tells David. The camera slowly zooms in on the photograph, then cuts to a picture of Baldwin’s stepfather, letting the first image linger. The slow dissolve produces a ghostly double-image, like a daguerreotype, creating a striking visual of the fundamental entanglement of white and Black America.

The heart of the film, though, is the bond between James and David Baldwin. David appears in most of the film’s non-Southern scenes, which must have pleased his older brother, who always wanted to cast David in the movies he tried to make, and over drinks at Mikell’s in Harlem they reflect on Baldwin’s trip South. Portions of their conversation at Mikell’s appear throughout, forming the film’s “spine,” in Fontaine’s words, and providing a narrative and expository framework.

Archived transcripts reveal that Baldwin often spoke in terms of state-sanctioned “genocide” against Black Americans, rather than “racism,” and that he argued that the civil rights movement was best categorized as the “latest slave rebellion.”

Weaving together personal and national memory, GRAPEVINE seeks to inspire historical literacy in a period at risk of political quiescence. But rather than offer a parade of facts, GRAPEVINE advocates a more fundamental shift in perspective. In one scene on the road to Selma, for example, shot from inside a car, as the camera captures the rural highway scenery, Baldwin says, in voiceover, “When I first went South, I felt, I felt I had come home,” and then, pausing, he continues, “You are aware of the trees. You are aware of how many of your brothers hung from those trees. In that landscape. Under that sky. And the people in that landscape have been doing that for generations. And may now do it to you.” Sun streams through the window as he speaks, a juxtaposition that demands that viewers recognize the saturation of the landscape with racist violence. The film’s interviewees share Baldwin’s sense of urgency for circulating alternative perspectives on American history. Oretha Castle Haley, for example, says Baldwin’s project has the potential to “teach and enable people to understand why things have happened” and to provide “a sense of renewal, a sense of re-dedication to the struggle that we are engaged in.” With its limited release, GRAPEVINE probably wasn’t quite so transformative, but the film, and Baldwin’s oral histories for it, still represent an invaluable archive of political history and Black radical thought.

It’s important to recognize, though, that only a fraction of Baldwin’s recorded interviews made it into the film. Some of the most searing political critiques were left on the cutting-room floor, including Baldwin’s conversation with Ben Chavis, who had just been released from prison, the last of the Wilmington Ten, a group of civil rights activists who were unjustly convicted of arson and conspiracy. Archived transcripts reveal that Baldwin often spoke in terms of state-sanctioned “genocide” against Black Americans, rather than “racism,” and that he argued that the civil rights movement was best categorized as the “latest slave rebellion,” for “as Malcolm pointed out a long time ago, if you’re a citizen you have your civil rights. If you don’t have your civil rights, what are you … a slave.” Baldwin’s criticism of politicians is similarly sharper in the archived transcripts: during his conversation with Chavis, for example, Baldwin repeatedly notes that Nixon was president during Chavis’s unjust trial, and at one point he interjects, “I want to say one thing, about Mr. Nixon, I want to say, do not cut this out, Nixon was a kind of amateur Hitler.” The line, however, was cut. Fontaine later told Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming that he had enough material for a four-hour film and that the final cut for British television was “too compressed,” but even in its edited version, Baldwin was shocked that they let it air.

A counter-media project

A crucial feature of film, for Baldwin, was its capacity to carry political critiques to a global audience and thereby build solidarity. For example, at a conference on African literature in St. Augustine Baldwin meets the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe for the first time, leading to a moving picture of diasporic solidarity. Baldwin and Achebe visit a former slave market that later served as a Ku Klux Klan meeting place, and as they enter the open-air structure, Baldwin grasps Achebe’s hand and proclaims that this was where they met four hundred years ago: “You were chained to me,” Baldwin says, “And I was chained to you.” Reflecting on the experience later with David, Baldwin explains, “There we were—together. It defeated a conspiracy that meant we should never be able to speak.” For the writer and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara, film was perfectly suited to forging such connections. “How shall a diasporized people communicate?” Bambara asked rhetorically. “Answer: independent films.” GRAPEVINE suggests that Baldwin would have agreed.

Indeed, the finished film and Baldwin’s archived interviews emphasize his commitment to making GRAPEVINE a counter-media project, designed to circulate alternative images and narratives about Blackness in America and to equip audiences with a critical media literacy. In a scene in Oretha Castle Haley’s living room, for example, Haley shows Baldwin the front page of the local newspaper, which features a sketch of a young Black man pointing a gun directly out at the reader. In his pupils, the artist has drawn skulls. The film then cuts from a close-up on the newspaper to a shot of Haley’s young son, who is Black, and his white friend. The two boys peer around the doorway as Haley’s son, with a mischievous grin, asks when dinner will be ready. Haley’s expression in response is a complex mixture of amusement, weariness, and love that raises the question: what kind of world will her son be able to grow up in? And how can a media landscape that demonizes and endangers Black life be challenged and remade?

We get a sense of Baldwin’s own answer to that latter question in his conversation with civil rights activist James Meredith, another interview that, as I mentioned above, was cut from the film. The last time Baldwin had seen Meredith was when Baldwin was planning a film collaboration with Warren Beatty, and reflecting back on that project, Baldwin tells Meredith that “Warren is all right but Hollywood is a strait jacket. There’s very little I can do in that framework.” Their conversation then turns to the popular television miniseries ROOTS (1977), based on Alex Haley’s novel. They agree that the series has been oriented toward white audiences, and they are both “frightened” by its particular framing of Blackness and Black history. In a statement about TV that echoes the film reviews he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s, Baldwin then proclaims, “the phenomenon of television can distort everything, and it is really, I’ve begun to think more and more and more, one of the most effective ways ever devised to destroy history, to make everything unreal.” GRAPEVINE, which was made for TV and centers on the recovery of familial and national history, aimed to accomplish just the opposite.

Throughout his career, Baldwin saw film as a powerful tool for forging connections and collectivity. In one scene in GRAPEVINE, Oretha Castle Haley says, of her New Orleans community, “Many of us have lost contact with each other and within the past year, we were forced to recognize that we have got to come together to recognize what’s going on.” GRAPEVINE implicitly argues that her sentiment applies to the Black community in the 1980s nationwide. So it’s important that the very process of making the film became a way to build community: as Baldwin crisscrossed the country, reconnecting with activist friends, he recreated the GRAPEVINE, reestablishing many of their ties with each other. The film’s initial screening was a similarly communal affair, held at Mikell’s, where some of the film was shot, and attended by Baldwin’s family and close friends, including Toni Morrison, Ossie Davis, and Max Roach. GRAPEVINE was then shown at the Film Forum Festival in New York and appeared on television in Britain and the United States. Afterwards it was extraordinarily difficult to see the film. If GRAPEVINE was, in some ways, a realization of many of Baldwin’s dreams for film, hopefully its re-release by Harvard Film Archive this year will build new communities. Such a project remains necessary today.

Hayley O’Malley is an Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

This text is a revised and shortened version of Hayley O’Malley’s article “Another Cinema: James Baldwin’s Search for a New Film Form” published in: James Baldwin Review, Vol. 7, 2021, pp. 90-114


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