The Devil Finds Work

I’ve been reading some of James Baldwin’s fiction and nonfiction in recent years. I’ve had a hard time consuming it critically. His influence on current cultural writers I admire, his contributions to critical theory, even his difficult prose; these all contribute to fan-boy level admiration from me. I don’t think Baldwin would’ve taken kindly to this. Baldwin was a radical. Radicals are skeptical of mainstream success. Whether he would’ve liked it or not, Baldwin is achieving new heights of mainstream success posthumously.

With this in mind, I walked into The Devil Finds Work tepidly. I love films. I love reading and writing film criticism. Films, for me, are the most comfortable works of art (especially pop art) to engage with. This book is much less about movie reviews than about cultural theory. It may be more useful to think of this book as a using movies as a jumping off point to social commentary. That’s what any good art criticism should be. And as an exercise in criticism, there’s a lot to learn from Baldwin here. The specific works in this book, I was less familiar with, with the exception of some very popular films from this time. But the themes were timeless. America is still grappling with many of these problems.

The best thing I learned from this book, though, was that cultural criticism is best when it squarely places the critic in relation to the art. Critics who aspire to some level of academic distance from the piece of art they’re dealing with end up doing a disservice to the art, the reader, and themselves.