Although James Baldwin is best known and loved for his novels, essays, and oratory, he is not often remembered as a great film critic, although, as Noah Berlatsky wrote in Atlantic, it should be. In 1976, Baldwin published The devil finds workan essay about my life as seen through film, the politics of art in America, and the nature of cinema itself.
He has a few things to say in the last chapter of the book Exorcist, which, upon its release in 1973, became the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and which still frequently tops lists of the greatest films of all time. Baldwin didn’t like it. “The film or its atmosphere reminded me Godfatherboth are shrouded in the same pious ambiguity,” he writes.
Ambiguous isn’t quite the right word, as the film’s plot is by no means ambiguous; however, hypocrisy isn’t quite the word either, as it suggests a more deliberate and sophisticated level of trickery. Exorcist desperately obsessive, and obsessive precisely in the horror of his unbelief. A huge amount of tomato paste is spent in Godfather intended to suggest vast reserves of courage, devotion and nobility, qualities that the film is completely unconcerned with – and which, apart from Brando’s performance, are never present in it. (At the same time, it is probably more correct to talk about Brando the presencehonor, agony, unchanging dignity.) Exorcist has absolutely nothing but Satan, who is certainly a star: I can only say that Satan was never so when he crossed my way (on the one hand, evil has never so grossly underestimated me). His concerns were more varied and his methods more subtle. Exorcist he is not at all concerned with damnation, an abyss far beyond his imagination, but with property, security, tax havens, stocks and bonds, the rise and fall of markets, the continued invulnerability of a certain class of people, and the continued sanctification of a certain history. If Exorcist himself believed that the story could hardly be reduced to such a meager dependence on special effects.
Baldwin was raised in the Pentecostal faith and was even teenage preachers for several years before he left the church, so it is safe to say that he was more knowledgeable about the devil than most people, and therefore especially ready to reveal the religious implications Exorcist, as well as racial undertones—always in this gorgeous, muscular, rich prose. Later he writes:
For I have seen the devil day and night, and I have seen him in you and me: in the eyes of a policeman, a sheriff and a deputy, a landlord, a housewife, a football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, mayors, in the eyes of some orphans, and in in my father’s eyes, and in my mirror. It is the moment when no other human being is as real to you as you are to yourself. The devil needs no dogmas – although he can use them all – and he needs no historical justifications, for history is largely his invention. He does not raise beds and does not fool around with girls: we to do
The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in the Exorcist it’s the scariest thing about the movie. Americans certainly need to know more about evil; if they pretend they’re not, they’re lying, and any black person, not just black people – many, many others, including white kids – can call them out on that lie, someone who’s been treated like the devil , recognizes the devil when they meet.
You can read Baldwin’s full remarks Exorcist here– but a whole book very much worth your time.