By Charles Reese
“You don’t tell life, life tells you.”
August 2, 2013 marks the 89th birthday celebration of James Arthur Baldwin. James Baldwin was a giant in literature, politics and culture. He was the author of dozens of cumulative classic, highly praised works, including non fiction books, essays, plays, and stories. He was passion; he was fire. He was black and homosexual at a moment in history when it could be harmful to be either–too loudly. He was an expatriate who left New York to live in France in the 1940’s–returning to the United States at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s to use the power of the pen and his strong voice as a proactive tool for social change.
I met James Baldwin during my freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA during the early 1980’s. Mr. Baldwin was bearing witness to the Atlanta Child Murders. The encounter was short and sweet. (And a memory that means more to me today than ever before). Mr. Baldwin was strolling across the campus of Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta) in a black cape with another professor. I looked at him and he looked at me with those big eyes and he simply said, “You have eyes like mine.” I smiled and said thanks. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized who I had just met. That brief encounter led me to read more of Baldwin’s literary works and then I got a one way ticket to Paris, France in search of Mr. Baldwin after my graduation from Morehouse circa 1985. (I was young and fearless). Upon my arrival to Baldwin’s place in St. Paul de Vence in the southern part of France , I was apprised that Mr. Baldwin was not in France in the summer of 1985, he was in the United States. (No email, texts, facebook, twitter or internet service in the 80’s).
Fast forward to my current life journey as a Cultural Architect for Public Engagement (C.A.P.E.), whose mission is to keep the fiery spirit of James Baldwin alive in this “new trans media ready global generation” and along with being a seasoned performing artist who has played the lead role of James Baldwin in a critically acclaimed Off Broadway play, “James Baldwin: A Soul On Fire” written by my Morehouse classmate, the late playwright and Emmy Award nominee, Howard B. Simon (1962-2000), where David DeWitt of the New York Times declared, “A Soul On Fire is funny, thrilling and wise,”— I often wondered why there hasn’t been a biopic about James Baldwin, his life story, or maybe a certain chapter of his life? It seems perfect for a film or a new narrative documentary for one of the unsung civil rights heroes and one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.
Now there have been a couple of note worthy documentaries: Take This Hammer (1963), of which was recently discovered a longer director’s cut; The Childhood: James Baldwin’s Harlem (1964); I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1980); James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989) and Witness James Baldwin (2003) which include family members along with readings of Baldwin’s work with the voice of Don Cheadle and narration by Danny Glover ; and to date, only one film adaptation of his first novel, “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” This American Playhouse/PBS film featured: Alfre Woodard, CCH Pounder, Rosalind Cash, Ruby Dee, Olivia Cole, Ving Rhames, Giancarlo Esposito, and Paul Whitfield. But still no major feature, television or cable film in the 25 years since Baldwin departed the literary and cultural scene on December 1, 1987.
On the other hand, there have been two major feature films on the life of writer Truman Capote who was one of Baldwin’s colleagues circa the early 60’s and ironically, in one film version, “Truman” with the amazingly talented, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who won the Oscar)–there was a very intriguing moment where Truman wonders what James Baldwin would say about his work in a party scene at the top of the film; but there was not a physical being playing the character of Baldwin in the film to answer the question. Truman is white and Baldwin is black. There are a number of bio pics on Blacks on the table and I would love to see them finally get done and reach a global audience. They include: Bayard Rustin, Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Beauford Delaney, Barbara Jordan, Miles Davis–just to name a few.
As I continue to travel throughout the USA and abroad in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Baldwin/Kennedy Secret Summit circa 1963 (and Baldwin’s seminal essay, The Fire Next Time…50 years later) with my James Baldwin Literary Performance Book Salon and Conversation Series, which utilizes the book version of the Off Broadway play, James Baldwin A Soul On Fire (now available at Amazon.com), I am bearing witness to a new generation of Baldwin followers due to the various forms of social media. This new generation (along with the seasoned Baldwin fans) are searching for creative ways to incorporate his works as a tool for tolerance in schools, colleges/universities, cultural centers, diverse corporation trainings, poetry/spoken word coffee houses, online bookstores, libraries and more. Baldwin’s biographer, David Leeming in his introduction to the playbook writes, “Baldwin was in many ways a burning soul. A man who loved the simple joys of life–eating, singing, loving. But he was above all a prophet, a man possessed by a driving and demanding need to remind his people–black and white–of how they had lost sight of the right path.”
James Baldwin was the artist who inspired me (and still does to this day). He was a teacher. And as he, himself described in his relationship with his mentor, the artist, Beauford Delaney, Baldwin, to me, from a distance became “an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. And absolute integrity.” I was honored to meet Baldwin’s baby sister, Paula Baldwin-Whaley in Baltimore, MD, and Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart in WashingtonDC at my literary performance book salons during my recent journey to the eastcoast. I have learned a great deal about what Baldwin meant to them as a brother, an uncle, an expatriate, a civil rights activist, a writer, a human being, and as a family man. He was their rock and this rock deserves to be heard and seen via a film for today’s generation and future generations to come, by any means necessary.
Ergo, to kick off James Baldwin’s 89th birthday, I raise a glass and propose a toast for the development of a film adaptation of the critically acclaimed Off Broadway play, James Baldwin A Soul On Fire (which uses the premise of the Baldwin/Kennedy Secret Summit of 1963) as a tool to ignite a movement to finally get a James Baldwin film complete and distributed to the global market. And the log line for this film adaptation will be: “What happens when an American writer, expatriate and civil rights activist, James Baldwin invites Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Kenneth Clark, and a young freedom rider, Jerome Smith to attend a secret round table discussion on race relations in America with Attorney General Robert Kennedy circa 1963?”
This is Hollywood and it is show BUSINESS, so in order to make sure this toast receives the greatest national and international awareness (and global funding resources), I will graciously serve as a facilitator for this film project. Yes I will humbly give up the role of Baldwin and I send out a call to action for the following two actors to prepare and consider the role of James Baldwin–Academy Award Nominee, DON CHEADLE (Iron Man 3,Hotel Rwanda, Crash) and Golden Globe Award Nominee, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR (2012, Talk to Me, Amistad). On your mark, set, ready and GO! And the fire still burns Mr. Baldwin. Happy Birthday!
ABOUT CHARLES REESE
Charles Reese is an Audelco Award Nominee, Cultural Architect, & Editor for James Baldwin A Soul On Fire (Glover Lane Press). He is a native of Washington, D. C. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications/Theatre Arts from MorehouseCollege. Charles earned a certificate of completion in Theatre Performance/Management from the Burt Reynolds Institute Theatre under the tutelage of the Master Theatre Director/Producer, Jose Quintero (in association with FloridaStateUniversity). Charles recently served as a special guest panelist at the 42nd annual Congressional Black Caucus Authors Pavilion in WashingtonDC. He has presented his highly popular James Baldwin Book Salon Reading & Conversation Series for the DC Commission for the Arts & Humanities (in partnership with the DC Humanities Council); Mayme Clayton Library & Museum with Emmy Award Nominee, CCH Pounder (Culver City, CA); Los Angeles Public Library/Playa Vista Branch (Playa Vista, CA); One National Gay & Lesbian Archives@USC (Los Angeles, CA); The Harlem Salon Society, (Hancock Park, CA); James Washington House & Studio (Seattle, WA); Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, MD), The Paul Roberson House, Philadelphia, PA and 651 ARTS@ Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts, Long Island University (Brooklyn,NY). Charles is the official USA affiliate for The Collectif James Baldwin in Paris, France. Charles is one of sixteen essayists chosen to write a chapter on Baldwin as part of a critical literary teaching series entitled, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors via FurmanUniversity in 2014.
Charles plays Jalel, the sardonic foil on the hit micro web comedy series, “WHO” available only at www.ajakwetv.com (created by Emmy Award Winner, Michael Ajakwe). Presently, Charles resides in Los Angeles, CA.
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