James Baldwin, whose novels and political essays have depicted the conditions and emotions of poverty in Black America, revisits one of the most tumultuous chapters in our history with a film of his own return to the South and the civil-rights movement 20 years later in "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Channel 32 at 9 and Channel 26 at 10).
Baldwin starts out sitting at a desk in his New York apartment, browsing through a picture book of Black American history. The book is untitled but the litany of images--the Ebenezer Baptist Church, firehoses, guard dogs, funeral marches, hopeless children on hot streets--comes to life. Baldwin tries hard to make sense of that past and understand the future by returning to the violent stages of the '60s--Washington, Birmingham, Selma, New Orleans, Jackson, Fayette and Newark--and meeting with some of the period's principal actors.
We hear from Hoyt Fuller, Imamu Amiri Baraka, James Meredith and others, but for all the time devoted to interviews, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is a personal document.
"It was 1957 when I left Paris for Little Rock," Baldwin says in his thoughtful, measured voice. "This is 1980 and . . . what has happened to all those people, children I knew then, and what has happened to this country, and what does this mean for the world? Medgar, Malcolm, Martin dead. Those men were my friends, all younger than me. But there is another roll call of unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on the Freedom Road. And what does this say concerning the morality of this country, or the morality of this age?"
Such far-reaching questions are valid and demand answers but the strength of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" lies not so much in the future it prescribes or predicts but rather in the stories it recalls and the emotions it revives. Although we often see film clips of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, the film is most effective when it concentrates on stories that involve less famous yet equally heroic and tragic figures of the time.
One of the most moving scenes shows a young boy, Ben Chaney, crying at the funeral of his older brother James, one of three civil-rights activists slain in a small town in Mississippi. The boy is crying uncontrollably, trying valiantly to sing "We Shall Overcome" with the congregation. The anger, confusion and grief is powerful. When we find out later that Ben Chaney is in jail, convicted for the murder of a white man, we are left with a set of political and emotional complexities that stay with us after the credits have rolled. Here Baldwin and directors Dick Fontaine and Pat Harley have used their talents to add new images that inform and move us deeply.
Unfortunately, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is not always as effective. A quibble is that, as in the movie "Reds," Baldwin's interview subjects are not identified. But there are more serious problems. There are times when the voice-over recollections and the images of terrible violence do little to educate those who never saw Bull Connors in action or to reenlist those who might have once been familiar with history but who have now chosen to ignore it. Baldwin allows himself easy irony and provides little insight when we hear Rosalynn Carter claiming great civil-rights victories for blacks and her husband's administration while the screen shows a white policeman beating a black protester. The message that the hopes of 20 years ago have been dashed and betrayed demands hearing, but the vehicle for that message is sometimes regrettably weak.
In another scene, Baldwin poses perhaps the most telling political question of the show. Jazz trombonist Grachen Moncur III plays a quiet blues in the background while Baldwin speaks: "When the struggle was in the South, that was one thing. I am a northerner and I knew that when we moved North we would encounter even stronger opposition, harder to confront because the enemy is in the bank."
Maybe because it is harder to show on television an exploitative northern banker than it is to show a bunch of racist lunatics beating a black man to the floor in a southern diner, the film does little to substantiate Baldwin's claim, and because it does not, the statement sounds a little hollow and must look elsewhere for its documentation and portrayal.