The Advocate

March 4, 2003

The Fire Still Burns

A new one-man show and television documentary remind us that the life and work of James Baldwin continue to resonate


by David Ehrenstein


Witness James Baldwin ■ Biography

Directed by Angie Coretti A&E

February 20, 2003, 8 P.M. Eastern/Pacific


James Baldwin…Down From the Mountaintop

Written and performed by Calvin Levels

4305 Village Theatre, Leimert Park, Los Angeles (through February 23; future performances in San Francisco, New York City, Houston, and Washington, D.C.)

     “Blacks are often confronted in American life with such devastating examples of the white descent from dignity; devastating not only because of the enormity of white pretensions, but because this swift and graceless descent would seem to indicate that white people have no principles whatsoever.” So wrote James Baldwin in 1976 in The Devil Finds Work, a nonfiction effort arriving late in a career that for over two decades had transfixed two continents with its blaring insight into race, sexuality, and the human heart.


    It goes without saying that were Baldwin, who died of cancer in 1987, alive today, he’d find what he said in 1976 more apropos than ever. Indeed, the author of such important and widely read works as Go Tell It On the Mountain, Another Country, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, and The Fire Next Time would find himself at considerable odds with George W.

Bush’s America, where the racial justice Baldwin fought for and the sexual freedom he reveled in are being opposed by a propaganda machine of enormous power and influence. And it’s because of this that the desire for an incendiary voice like Baldwin’s hasn’t slackened among those who’ve noted that in the president’s home state, Confederate Heroes Day is celebrated during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.


    Happily, a full-scale Baldwin revival is upon us. A&E’s Biography and actor-writer Calvin Levels’s one-man show James Baldwin…Down From the Mountaintop in Los Angeles recall the life of a man who refused to let either poverty or prejudice stand in his way.  He thereby serves as an inspiration to countless others – black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight.  The two presentations cover much of the same biographical ground but do so in strikingly different ways.  We learn of Baldwin’s difficult childhood, the white teacher who encouraged and inspired him, the instant respect he received in France – far in advance of his later American fame – and the important role he played in explaining what the civil rights movement was all about to both black and white America.


Witness James Baldwin has the advantage in that it features considerable footage of Baldwin himself.  In contrast, Levels attempts to channel Baldwin’s spirit in a stage show that emphasizes his contentious side, but while he captures Baldwin’s anger, he can’t quite get a grip on the author’s elegant cool. He reenacts Baldwin’s conflicts with his stepfather, a strict Pentecostal preacher who perpetually reminded his adopted son (Baldwin never knew his real father) of his “ugliness.”


    Yet in real life, this small, enormous-eyed, big-toothed man glowed with charm, a fact underscored in the documentary by literally everyone interviewed in it. Among them, filmmaker Angie Coretti was lucky to find Lucien Happersberger, a lover from Baldwin’s days in Paris, who clearly inspired aspects of his breakthrough gay love story, Giovanni’s Room, a book without any black characters. “Merely by publishing the book, he came out,” veteran gay journalist Richard Goldstein observes.


    And merely by living a life in which black and white, gay and straight, and every other aspect of what it means to be human were intermingled, Baldwin testified to the existence of a “better self” that today, many would say, appears impossible. But as Baldwin himself says in the documentary, “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”


Ehrenstein is the author of “Open Secret:

Gay Hollywood 1928-2000”


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