"How Shall We Put Ourselves in Touch with Reality?" On Baldwin, Film, and Acknowledgment

Social Research: An International Quarterly 87 (4):991-1021 (2020)
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What might film’s contribution be to the work of acknowledgment, apology, and moral repair? James Baldwin's 1976 book on film, The Devil Finds Work, can be read as a reflection on the role that film might play in the extensive, multi-dimensional, public task of, as he puts it, putting ourselves in touch with reality, specifically the reality of American racism as an integral to American reality, its past and present. Developing Baldwin's thought, this paper outlines two broad types of cinematic pictures or conceptions of racism: (1) films can present racism as a special event, or (2) films can present racism as a pervasive, structural reality. The former is complicit in a racist ideology that pictures racism as exceptional, rare, and unusual; the latter functions to critique such an ideology by picturing racism, not as a departure from the norm, but as constitutive of it. I develop a formal account of these cinematic pictures or conceptions through close analysis of two films made three years apart: Norman Jewison’s 1967 In the Heat of the Night (which Baldwin also analyses) and Michael Roemer’s 1964 film Nothing But a Man.

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Francey Russell
Barnard College


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