The Devil Finds Work is the last book-length piece of nonfiction (Baldwin calls it an “essay”) that Baldwin wrote, and though it’s similar to some earlier pieces in its focus on Baldwin’s autobiography, and obviously addresses similar themes, it picks a new point of departure: the movies. The sweep of this book is captured really well by the 2017 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which draws several passages from this book (as well as No Name in the Street).
A simple way to summarize this book would be to say, Baldwin tries to show us what American film looks like (and has always looked like) to him as a black American. He starts very early in his life, going all the way back to his earliest experiences attending movies with his family or with his white teacher (a woman named Bill). This all brings me back to a memorable passage from the much-earlier “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the narrator, a high school math teacher, describes students’ plight:
All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.
That narrator has discovered his way out of that blindness, or else he couldn’t write about it: here in The Devil Finds Work Baldwin is exploring the impact of that blindness from another angle: what it does for White America.
At first, the title of the work – The Devil Finds Work – seemed oblique and irrelevant to the cinematic criticism that forms the bulk of the essay, but towards the end, in a powerful few pages of deeply personal confession of faith, Baldwin tells us about the Evil One:
For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.
This draws together some threads that run through so many Baldwin essays, especially the idea that in failing to truly regard the other, we lose a sense of ourselves, and that this is a particular problem for white America. In making black people in to n-words, Baldwin, argues, white people make themselves into monsters.
Baldwin ends up arguing that American cinema, from its earliest incarnations (he spends a long time on The Birth of a Nation) has served just this devilish function – to anesthetize White America’s against its own awareness of its evil and guilt. Now, for Birth of a Nation, this is a straightforward exercise in racism. It’s a film that venerates the KKK as the protectors of order after the end of the civil war, after all. Nothing new there, and we don’t need James Baldwin to decode that for us. What I think Baldwin got closer to answering, for me though, is just why Birth of a Nation occupies the central place in the history of American film that it does. Why it was such a hit.
And the way Baldwin explores that question is by looking to some other more apparently “liberal-minded” films, considering In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and then also a biopic about Billie Holiday, in which he analyzes a scene where the Klan harasses her, and her white band-mates rally to her defense:
The scene operates to resolve, at one stroke, several problems, and without in the least involving or intimidating the spectator. The lynch scene is as remote as an Indian massacre, occurring in the same landscape, and eliciting the same response: a mixture of pious horror, and gratified reassurance.
The genius of The Devil Finds Work is that it draws together the dehumanization of white racism and the strategy of reassurance for the liberal-minded white person so many of these films appeal to.
Which really helped me understand a frustration with certain films I’ve always experienced – most recently with Lincoln but going all the way back to things like Schindlier’s List, A Time To Kill and earlier in my own movie-going experience: you sit down to watch a film that is “about racism”, but you know from the beginning it will actually be about the profound goodness or inherent earnestness of its exceptional WHITE protagonist. He (and it’s usually a “he”) will rise above his historical circumstances and sound to us “strikingly modern,” while he looks down upon the small minded simpletons who just happen to be racist, who surround him (and, as Baldwin points out, there’s often a simple-minded black person in their midst as well).
The function of all of this is to free the white viewer from ever having to more deeply interrogate his own privilege. I.e., the devil preserves his foothold as you emerge from the theater still numb to your own self in your willingness to believe that there is nothing irredeemable or historically conditioned or problematic about your own racism, because, after, all, you can always tell yourself “things have gotten better.” Because of someone like Lincoln, who, among other things, feels just like yourself. So we can look to the past to validate our present even while we think we’re watching a film “about racism.”
Baldwin explains that all much better than me but that’s the core idea here, and it’s extraordinarily powerful in its explanatory power in understanding film and understanding our world.