Tuesday 2 February 2021

Resistance: "Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris"

Unearthed by MUBI to mark Black History Month, Meeting the Man is a raggedly fascinating artefact: a documentary short, shot in 1970, which serves particularly well as a pendant-film to 2016's excellent James Baldwin study I Am Not Your Negro. At several points here, you feel Baldwin itching to throw that phrase at his would-be interrogator, the British arts TV veteran Terence Dixon, who found the then 46-year-old author two decades into his exile in a chilly, autumnal Paris; Baldwin agreed to be profiled on the condition he was approached (to quote Dixon's plummy-voiced narration) "as a writer, rather than a political figure". Already, we're getting a sense this wasn't the easiest of rendez-vous to nail down. Dixon, clearly, wanted to make one kind of film, Baldwin entirely another (that's if he wanted to make a film at all), which may be why the writer recruited a couple of American students to act as interlocutors or minders when negotiations began to break down. If you're seeking some slick, One Show-style puff piece on a great American writer in Paris, you'll likely want to look elsewhere, as everybody associated with this here-today-all-but-gone-tomorrow filler soon found themselves several boulevards off the usual comfortable PR terrain. Yet that's what makes Meeting the Man so illuminating, and you may have cause to wonder how much Baldwin's pulling back - his marked resistance to this set-up - was premeditated, a way of asserting his own authorship over the project, and of revealing only what he wanted to reveal. When an exasperated Dixon finally bursts out from behind the camera and into the frame asking "What's the problem? What are we doing wrong?", he does appear to be speaking for clueless white liberals everywhere.

For much of its 25 minutes, then, Meeting the Man can't help but resemble a production meeting that just so happens to be taking place on camera. What it shows us, however, is a small battle for power - confined to a few square blocks of the French capital - which speaks to a far bigger picture. Dixon has the camera on his side, pinning Baldwin up against the gates of the Bastille at one point; Baldwin responds with confrontational stares, a mocking smile, and whipsmart, accusatory phrasing: "I know something about you. You know nothing about me." You probably couldn't have dramatised a more accurate summary of the parlous state of race relations as they were in 1970, nor of how closely the personal and political are intertwined. Of the biography, we learn Baldwin left America in 1948 specifically because he felt his life was under threat - much as with that other noted 20th century thinker Einstein fleeing the Nazis, he got out while he still could, unlike Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and so many others. (As he plaintively informs Dixon, once things cool a little: "They're killing my friends - it's as simple as that.") If that meant surrounding himself in Paris with acolytes and other sycophants, wasn't that the smart move, a means of protecting himself further? Even here, though, Baldwin is compelled to take up arms against Dixon's fraught idea that he's escaped: "What have I escaped? Where would a fleeing black man go if he wanted to escape?" Presumably, in 1970, the film would have been received as proof that Baldwin was a difficult interviewee, a touchy subject. (Arguably no more so than, say, Norman Mailer, but for some reason the white liberal arts media would have given Mailer a free pass.) Watched in 2021, I think - I hope - we know or at least have a more informed idea of what Baldwin was bristling against and fighting for, his reasons for not just playing blithely along with whitey's game.

Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris is streaming from today via MUBI.


  1. excellent summary. Black Lives Matter forty years before it's time

    1. Thank you - yes, all parties were certainly onto something here...