At first, the TV light is silver. Then it goes to black and white. A moment passes and we see the Columbia Pictures lady. She’s a figure in Adrienne Kennedy’s 1976 play, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, where she speaks the author’s thoughts, but at present I don’t know Kennedy’s play. My own fan notes about the Columbia Pictures lady and the movies she introduces us to start now, in 1968 or 1969, when I’m eight or nine, somewhere in there. Dressed in Grecian robes and carrying a torch, the Columbia Pictures lady lights the way to a very real world we have no dates or production credits for, but what does any of that matter? Or the fact that the movies we watch on TV don’t “reflect” us. (The “we” I’m referring to is me, my little brother, and our older sister, a teenager.) Our wishes are our most reliable mirror, and the black-and-white movies I’m most drawn to are about artists who suffer because art is a noble thing; suffering is such a small price to pay for the imagination.
My mother reveres artists, and my sister and I have inherited her love of art and the stories about its creation. It’s better than the crumbling Brooklyn apartments we live in. Here everything is what it is, unchangeable, but on TV the world can change. One minute you’re in Switzerland or Poland with Cornel Wilde as Frédéric Chopin, an hour later you’re in Wales with Bette Davis as a dedicated schoolteacher who recognizes one student’s gift for writing. On another channel, we watch the delectable Teresa Wright saying words by a playwright named Thornton Wilder about being a double to a con artist and murderer. When Teresa Wright thinks about any of this, her chin goes up, a small, defiant move in a perfect face.
My sister has a perfect face. She’s a poet in fact and sensibility, so the TV is not interesting to her until she finds things on it that do interest her: Nina Simone playing the piano, for one. My sister doesn’t love the girls my brother and I love, though, girls like Ann-Margret. To my sister’s way of thinking, Ann-Margret’s white ingenue charm is insignificant when compared with the sisters: black women in the struggle.
We see those sisters and that struggle all the time, though. Maybe that’s one reason we love Ann-Margret: she’s not part of our world, the small universe we’re forced to contend with on a daily basis. That world doesn’t like us. My brother and I are “different”: I hang out with girls and read books, and he’s sensitive. But we pretend to like our sister’s friends, all those guys in dashikis who make fun of us because it’s Nation time, and we have Afros, too; but the TV tells us more about our dreams.
Anyway, with the TV you don’t have to be black or white, you can be in the story, or an element in the story, like Ida Lupino’s quill as she writes Wuthering Heights in Devotion, that movie about the Brontë sisters, or you can be all the feelings Ida Lupino has as Emily Brontë—the feelings of an artist. When our sister comments on Ann-Margret’s whiteness, we ignore her. We’re not in love with the star’s race but with Ann-Margret herself, a fantasy so real that race doesn’t enter the equation: what we see on the TV as Ann-Margret dances in her black leotards, red hair flying, is love. A love we don’t experience in the real world much, if a ghetto is the real world.
While I love Ann-Margret, she never stars in the stories I love best, which are true stories about artists and follow a certain trajectory: obscurity, sacrifice, and then, sometimes, love. The world doesn’t understand artists because their imaginations are so new, culled from an ultimately unknowable self, and people just naturally reject the new, the way they reject queerness in their own family until someone gets used to it, if they ever do. I never thought of the movies I absorbed as “biopics” but as evocations of real life, but wasn’t all of it better, somehow, with costumes, and music by Max Steiner?
Back when I first saw that movie about the Brontës, say, or Robert Morley as a confused and sad Oscar Wilde right before “Reading Gaol,” I took photographs. I was thirteen or so. I used an Instamatic then and, later, after I saved up for it, a Polaroid. My primary inspirations were Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton—artists who made small still movies starring the great and the fabled. But I didn’t know any well-known people who could sit for me; the most glamorous people I knew were my sister and her kids. My sister is also the most inventive woman I’ve ever known, and she understood photography and how it told the truth and lied, all at once. In front of the camera, my sister could be an idea of herself and whomever I needed her to be, simultaneously, even Nina Simone. Avedon has called photography a fiction, but that doesn’t mean fiction doesn’t tell the truth, just as Ida Lupino’s characterization of a historical figure she never met tells the truth about the feeling the artist gives us, on the page.
One book I think about a great deal when I consider all this—movies as escape, stories as reality, race as just one of life’s interesting impossibilities, my sister and her understanding of aesthetics as a trick and a truth—is James Baldwin’s book-length essay The Devil Finds Work. There Baldwin describes his relationship to movies, both as a spectator and as a writer of film scripts. (Spike Lee incorporated some of Baldwin’s original adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X into his scenario for Malcolm X, released in 1992.) I’ve long thought The Devil Finds Work would make a great American movie in the old Columbia Pictures style: Jeffrey Wright or a young Morgan Freeman, say, dressed as Baldwin in a white shirt and tie walking through a museum of pictures and commenting on some of the stills and the stars that mattered to his young gay self: Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney, and the like. While the director Raoul Peck used parts of The Devil Finds Work as the voice-over narration in his 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro, and we saw Baldwin himself, courtesy of old documentary footage, the movie seemed less real to me than it seemed to many others, because while we saw Baldwin in fact, we didn’t feel him in essence: an impersonator might get closer to Baldwin’s truth and lies.
I’ve read The Devil Finds Work many times, and I have looked at Avedon’s portraits of James Baldwin many times. And somewhere in the space between those words and images I was inspired to dream the kind of movie I would make about James Baldwin if I could make a movie. I was there to say goodbye to him thirty years ago at Saint John the Divine, when he was eulogized by Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. I went to that unforgettable spectacle with the actress Diahnne Abbott, and in my mind’s eye I can see the beautiful Diahnne against the backdrop of all those mourners, and I can hear Diahnne’s voice in tandem with the drums, and Baldwin’s mother’s cries as she weeps for her eldest son in the front pew, dressed in black, her black eyes made famous by her son: “I have my mother’s eyes.” In his wonderful, fractured, and strange 1960 essay about the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Baldwin interrupts his narrative about the director to propose the kind of film he would make if he had Bergman’s resources: Baldwin’s film would start on a slave ship, and then those lonely blacks would be given the Bible, and all their ancient rites would be dumped in the sea along with the black bodies that didn’t make it.
After a long time away from it, following my sister’s death last year, I picked up the camera again, and no sooner did I miss seeing her in the view finder than I began to think about Nina Simone, her great love. If I made a movie about James Baldwin, Nina Simone—which is to say, my sister—would have to star in it, and that way I could get them both back: my sister through Nina, and Baldwin through my imagination. And if I had them back, I could spend the day with them, at least, in New York, a city my sister and Baldwin both loved, and during that day we would visit those artists and places—Kara Walker’s show over at Brent Sikkema’s, the Studio Museum in Harlem—that Nina, my sister, and Jimmy, my gay brother, had never seen, but I could take them to, guide their way to, just as the Columbia Pictures lady had once lit my way to those movies that changed the world right before my very eyes, while giving me myself.