James Baldwin came alive as never before in Karen Thorsen’s documentary James Baldwin: The Price Of The Ticket, first released in 1990 and rereleased on its 25th anniversary in a newly restored print. Doubly enhanced by the collaboration of the late Maya Angelou, who provided live readings of Baldwin’s work and acted as scholar–advisor for the original film, this refurbished and brightened version of the documentary fleshes out Baldwin’s tactile characteristics in a manner rarely captured by any of his literary biographers. Here his fey appearance—gay affect, clipped vocal mannerisms, and mincing steps—warms the heart.
I cannot recall another documentary on a black writer that contained such breadth and resonance. Scenes of Baldwin asleep, in his underwear, walking down the street, talking to children, visiting bars, etc.—his resplendent soul always down-to-earth—were lovingly and delicately recorded in this film. A deeply humble man, he never strove for anything that would take him above the dignity of his mother, despite his celebrity status. For this reason, one might wonder at the pomp and circumstance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in celebration of his passing. He was a man of the people, working in the vineyard to speak the truth as he knew it.
Gordon Thompson is professor of English and African American Studies at City College of New York.