Celebration of James Baldwin As Writer and Civil-Rights Activist

Documentary relives the author's triumphs and re-airs his grief. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

AMERICAN MASTERS: THE PRICE OF THE TICKET PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m. Documentary portrait of James Baldwin produced by Karen Thorsen and William Miles. Directed by Ms. Thorsen. `THERE are days when you consider what your role is in this country and what your future is in it,'' says the late James Baldwin at the opening of this 90-minute documentary.

The future of blacks in the United States became the primary concern for this activist who grew up in Harlem, and lived abroad (Paris, Switzerland, Turkey), as well as in the States, becoming one of the country's most eloquent voices on behalf of civil rights through the 1960s until his death two years ago.

Viewers acquainted with Baldwin's novels, essays, and printed lectures know his work can be alternately angry, sweet, poetically distilled, and winningly idiosyncratic. Now they can see the same qualities in the actions of this engaging, diminutive but sinewy-tough writer, through the photographs and film clips assembled here.

``From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being,'' Baldwin says in one of the many interview excerpts stitched together with archival footage, speeches, and eulogies. We see him playing his own protagonist, delightfully embracing victories, sadly lamenting defeats. And we learn that, though stingingly vitriolic at times, he usually preferred to score his points with eloquence, elegance, wit, and irony.

``When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual. You must've said to yourself, `Gee how disadvantaged can I get?' suggested one TV interviewer.

``No,'' answered Baldwin, flashing his signature gap-toothed smile. ``...I thought I'd hit the jackpot.''

No less revealing are the remarks of friends and contemporaries.

At Baldwin's funeral in 1987, comedian/writer Dick Gregory dubbed him ``God's black revolutionary mouth.''

Biographer David Leeming said, ``Everyone who came into contact with Jimmy had his or her life changed. ... And that's the mark of a real teacher, and it's the mark of a prophet.''

Among the friends of Baldwin interviewed in the film are writers Amiri Baraka, William Styron, Ishmael Reed, and Maya Angelou.

Commenting on Baldwin's ``Fire Next Time'' (where the writer comments, ``We can't end the racial nightmare if we don't dare everything''), Styron says, ``It was one of the great documents of the 20th century.''

Amiri Baraka says, ``I think all of us owe James Baldwin - those of us who are interested in black liberation, those of us who are interested in human progress, those of us who are interested in writing - [we] owe him a great debt.''

Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin was the eldest of nine children of an extremely rigid father who wanted James to become a preacher.

His father had a hard time feeding the family, recalls Baldwin, but had great hopes for American blacks. ``He wanted Negroes to have power and own buildings,'' says Baldwin. ``It's what killed him.''

Writing his first play by age eight and the school song for his local elementary school, he knew he wanted to be a writer by age 14. ``I read everything there - I mean every single book'' at the 135th Street Library, near his home, he says. One of the experiences that had a great impact on him was three years spent in the pulpit as a teen-age preacher. ``I didn't realize it then,'' he later recalled, ``[but] that is what turned me into a writer, really - dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.''

Baldwin used the word ``flee'' to describe his voluntary exile to Paris in 1948, after working for three years as a book reviewer. Using the context of a foreign culture to examine and better appreciate his own, he commented, ``It gave me time to vomit up a great deal of bitterness.''

Paris, New York, Switzerland, and Turkey are where he turned out his first three works, beginning with the autobiographical ``Go Tell It on the Mountain'' in 1953. Then came ``Giovanni's Room,'' on the then-taboo theme of homosexuality, and ``Another Country,'' about intimate relationships between blacks and whites.

After returning home to take part in the the civil rights struggle, Baldwin spent time in the South, and began to write for whites about the black experience. He ``was one of the first people to cry out what we were feeling, and in fact what we were going to feel, and what we were going to do,'' says historian James Briggs Murray. ``He was one of the first to articulate it.'' Befriending such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who were both assassinated, Baldwin infused his writings with both the hope and disillusionment he carried to his death.

``Jimmy was not bitter. What Jimmy was was angry,'' says Maya Angelou. ``...Angry at injustice, at ignorance, at exploitation, at stupidity, at vulgarity.''

The film deals sparsely with Baldwin's later years, in which he continued to teach at a number of universities - Amherst and Mt. Holyoke among them. He continued to lecture and appear at conferences and seminars, driven by two disperate goals: the moral need to preach the gospel of black/white equality, and the practical need for blacks to unite in a revolution to undo decades of imposed shackles.

In its focus on Baldwin's achievements, ``The Price of the Ticket'' is essentially positive. It includes few dissenting voices and no criticism.

By reliving the author's triumphs and re-airing his public and private grief, the film reinforces Dick Gregory's 1987 statement that blacks must ``celebrate him ... if we are ever to be truly self-determining.''

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