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James Baldwin’s Anguish Prescience in «I Heard It Through the Grapevine»

There are films that, through the power of style, get their ideas onto the screen, as if the images came from within the creators themselves, like their voices. The 1982 documentary «I Heard It Through the Grapevine» by filmmakers Dick Fontaine (died last October) and Pat Hartley is different. Through a well-thought-out form and unique method, it brings deep thoughts – above all, through the dedicated attention of the creators to the person who is at the center of it all the time, James Baldwin. Played at the Film Forum, among other films about Baldwin (including Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary «I’m not your black man«), but «I Heard It Through the Grapevine» stands out among them for not being a portrait of Baldwin. Rather, it is a kind of investigative film about journeys and encounters, in which Baldwin is guide, observer, interviewee and commentator. «Grapevine» is a work of political history about the civil rights movement — and the continuing failure of the United States to live up to its promise of justice and equality for black people.

The film consists of Baldwin’s visits to places throughout the United States that are of vital importance in black history, that is, American history. this court. He begins by talking about the time that has passed since his trip to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when school desegregation met with violence, and the many lives lost along the way, whether leaders who were also his friends (Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; Medgar Evers) or the missing who «did not die but whose lives were destroyed in the path of freedom». Time and place – the juxtaposition of then and now – are at the heart of the film. Fontaine and Hartley made the documentary in 1980, less than twenty years after the March on Washington and the 1965 passage of major federal civil rights legislation. In a pre-internet era, when archival news footage was canned and largely inaccessible, they, like Baldwin, rescued recent history from oblivion, and did so in a way that, even when viewed four decades later, brings it urgency . present tense.

On Baldwin’s travels, he is accompanied by important participants in major events in the places he visits, either in past decades or at the time of filming. His efforts to bring the past into the present soon received a majestic combination of warning and blessing from the poet and scholar Sterling A. Brown, then in his eighties. «Remember you’re not a sociologist—you’re a visionary and you’re a reformer,» Brown reminds Baldwin. With a poetically ironic flourish, he adds, «If you weren’t so conservative, I’d say you’re a revolutionary.»

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There is, of course, nothing conservative about Baldwin’s political views; his conservatism lies instead in his deeply historicist view of American identity, including his own. His preoccupation with American history and tradition is central to the film. One of the towns he visits is Bunkie, Louisiana, where his stepfather was from, and he discussed the trip with his brother David. (His half-brother, strictly speaking; Baldwin never knew his biological father, but adopted his stepfather’s last name and called him father.) Baldwin visits a cemetery and finds the gravestone of a deceased uncle, born in 1866. He then mentions that their father had a half-brother , «the brother that the grandmother had from the master». He says of this fair-skinned relative, «It was strange to see, you know, actually your father in white face.» Baldwin muses, «Sons of the same mother,» then adds that «outside churches, priests, and cathedrals, the truth can never be hidden.» His brother, with a silent oracle of power, replies: “Without hope, they deny their relatives and do so in the name of purity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is essential black Americanism—and the centrality of blackness to American identity—that makes Baldwin a conservative revolutionary. His journeys in «Heard It Through the Grapevine» form a memorial project of personal and historical reclamation. It seeks to make the voices of the past—and black lives, whether celebrated or not—sing in their places today. Or sometimes exclaim, as when he and David visit a cove near Bunkie and note that it’s where the bodies of «some of our more unruly ancestors have been found, swimming face down, dead, of course.» Elsewhere, on the road from Birmingham to Selma, Baldwin reflects on the surrounding landscape and says, “You know about the trees. You know how many of your brothers hung in those trees in that country.» In Birmingham, he meets the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, whose church and home were bombed in the 1950s, and who shows him the area where the bomb went off ; the filmmakers follow it up with archival footage showing the horrifying extent of the damage. (At the time of filming, Georgia attorney JB Stoner was on trial for the bombing.) Shuttlesworth also takes Baldwin to the street where he and his wife were attacked in 1957 by Klansmen for trying to desegregate high school school.Fontaine and Hartley accompany Shuttlesworth’s account of that day with film footage of the actual attack.

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In Newark, they visit longtime friend Amiri Baraka, and together they walk and drive through the city, sadly surveying the neighborhood that was damaged during the riots that broke out in July 1967 in response to the police attack on the Black Taxi Driver. Since then, the streets have been left to decay by city management; their visit is interspersed with views of the street, as it was just after the uprising. When they look at the housing project, which Baldwin calls «the reservation,» they see broken and boarded-up windows from police and National Guard gunfire—and their observations match archival footage of government troops firing on the project. Baldwin and Baraka will also see the appalling living conditions the project’s residents endure due to economic neglect and political indifference. One woman shows them that her family’s apartment even lacks a working door. Seeing such monuments leads Baldwin to identify the bitter paradox of the struggle for civil rights in the North, where there has long been no legal segregation, but rather economic injustice. (Baldwin and his partners emphasize throughout the film that economic justice has always been a central goal of the civil rights movement.) Through footage of the great trombonist from Newark Grachan Moncur III Soloing in the flat, Baldwin muses that the latter may be «even more ferocious opposition» but that it’s «harder to face because the enemy is in the bank.»

The most poignant juxtaposition of current events and archival footage occurs when Baldwin leaves for St. Augustine in Florida accompanied by a Nigerian writer China Achebe. They visit an open-air pavilion long known as the «old slave market» where enslaved Africans were actually displayed and sold. As Baldwin and Achebe consider the experiences they might have had at the site if they were fellow prisoners, Fontaine and Hartley show footage of a 1964 Ku Klux Klan rally at a site where a white speaker declares black civil rights unconstitutional because «when our forefathers they wrote the constitution, (N-words) they were slaves”. As Baldwin and Achebe sit in the shade of the pavilion’s roof, a local resident tells them that the Klan has returned «mighty and strong» and even «is now in places where they were not in those days and years.»

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In «I Heard It Through the Grapevine,» Baldwin delivers on the retrospective look at his life promised by its early sequences in ways that go far beyond the anecdotal. Other films in which he participated — e.g a trio of short films («Baldwin’s N****r», «Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris» and «James Baldwin: From Another Place»), which are also showing at the Film Forum, as well as «Take this hammer” (1964), which is not in the series – provides a fuller sense of Baldwin’s ideas and a richer presentation of his voice. But what emerges in «I Heard It Through the Grapevine,» for all its close attention to history and national politics, is no less personal; namely, Baldwin’s reckoning with what he sees as the failure of the civil rights movement, that is, the failure of America. Baldwin simply states that the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s «was never implemented» and that the enduring lesson of the era and its aftermath is that «the system cannot change, it cannot transform. There is no morality in America to beg for.” What might have seemed mere pessimism in 1980 turns out to be desperately prescient in 2024. ♦

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