Documentary filmmaker Terence Dixon has arrived in Paris for a filmed interview with celebrated African American author James Baldwin, writer of novels and essayist highlighting the lives of black people in the United States. Apparently more white folks read these than black folks, or at least this is one of the factoids Dixon has found in his research, but if he believes he can get his interview going all his own way on his own terms, he has reckoned without the strong will of Baldwin and what he wants to talk about...
Lost, or at least unseen, for around fifty years, this short was unearthed and presented as a complement to the successful 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro which delineated Baldwin's ideas with some lucidity. But that title could also have been applied to Dixon's efforts here as his subject proved evasive under his questions, the epitome of the nineteen-seventies white liberal trying to get onboard with the black revolutionary cause and proving that unless you had been born into the black experience in the West, you would never get under its skin.
Sure, you could listen to people like Baldwin who were keen to be represented and, if he is to be believed here (why wouldn't you?) avoid getting murdered by your fellow citizens and authorities alike, but unless you have ever been in fear of your life because of your race, you were not going to be able to immerse yourself in black consciousness with any sense of completeness. Dixon's problem is that he thinks he can ask a half hour of questions and get to the heart of the matter, but Baldwin exposes this as a mindset that is farcical at best, delusional at worst.
Indeed, those earlier scenes where the director tries to intellectually wrestle him into delivering the answers he was hoping for and steer his film in the direction he wanted could legitimately pass for what's known as cringe comedy now, assuming you had any sense of humour about the reluctance of an interviewee in the face of an interviewer who doesn't really "get" them, nor be aware of why that is. It's a worthy reminder to anyone who tries to stand with someone they regard as oppressed that there's a fine line between supportive and patronising, and Baldwin is very aware of that distinction, though he offers the impression of being tired of journalists trying to pin him down.
Dixon gets pretty het up at Baldwin's stubbornness, but things calm down in the second half (it's just under half an hour long) when they retire to the home of an artist the writer is friends with, and a collection of black students are there to draw him out somewhat; Dixon, apparently learning on the job, wisely stays out of this intellectual love-in. But he did get the sit-down chat he wanted by the end, asking questions that suggest he is approaching Baldwin from a perspective that desperately wants to understand, or perhaps wants his audience to understand, yet when he inquires stuff like whether the author escaped from the States to reach Paris, he is pointedly rebuffed with the response, where could a black man really escape to in the West? But while this verbal jousting and conversational confrontation was entertaining, what was more sobering was how little had advanced in race relations from that day to this.