The Pequod Review:
James Baldwin is most famous for his novels and short stories, but his best and most lasting work is his non-fiction essays. They are direct and lucid, and unfiltered by narrative or metaphor. Collected Essays, published in 1998 by the Library of America, brings together a comprehensive collection of these various writings — not just his superb autobiographical essay about growing up in New Jersey (“Notes of a Native Son”), but his broader political and literary essays, reviews, articles and polemics. Some of the most surprising and insightful essays in this collection are drawn from his film criticism. In addition to the fifteen or so film reviews, the book includes "The Devil Finds Work," a semi-autobiographical essay that considers racial attitudes and stereotypes in film. Here for example he talks about the relationship between stardom and race:
The distance between oneself—the audience—and a screen performer is an absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy. No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—or John Wayne—can, or could, really act or not, nor does anyone care: acting is now what they are required to do. Their acting ability, so far from being what attracts their audience, can often be what drives their audience away. One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade; one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart. I don’t wish, here, to belabor a point to which we shall, presently, and somewhat elaborately, be compelled to return: but “no one,” I read somewhere a long time ago, “makes his escape personality black.” That the movie star is an “escape” personality indicates one of the irreducible dangers to which the moviegoer is exposed: the danger of surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen.
This is a very good collection and the best place for new readers to start.