Review: The Baldwin Archives

Directed by Laura Seay and written by lead actor Tory Devon Smith, one room, two men, one bold conversation. In 1963, famed author James Baldwin sits with BBC journalist Peter Duval Smith as the legendary writer expresses his perception on the plight of racism in America, and the importance of compassion for your fellow human being. Also Starring: Jordan Gavaris and Kristen Rozanski.

Some films hand you their themes and issues on a platter while some let you contemplate and discover them on your own, but The Baldwin Archives is a great mix of both. The layers on the surface show the great man who was James Baldwin (Tory Devon Smith): eloquent, intelligent, graceful, witty, passionate and full of depth. Beyond that it asks you to dig for the real heart of this short film, its ruminations on race and celebrity. If you were to take it at face value, it might appear overtly simple and there is a simplicity to its style but it also holds the idea of how Baldwin faced racism and prejudice, even in the height of his fame. Having to face such openly racist questions, and cutting down his work to only be about race and not the human experience. It’s baffling that this is still an issue today, with works by Black authors, filmmakers and artists being pushed so aggressively into one box rather than seeing the whole picture.

That aggression and prejudice is overtly apparent in the dialogue but it’s also interpreted through Tory Devon Smith’s performance. It’s the pacing and tone of his answers as Baldwin, taking the time to phrase his words to push the conversation back on topic, while not giving a pass to the interviewer (Jordan Gavaris). In the same way that Gavaris’ performance brings out that racism and highlights just how casual it was and without even a second thought or slight awareness of the pointed nature of his words. One of the interesting elements is that the two of them actually have a strong chemistry, which really embraces the mix of tension and professionalism. However, the focus is without doubt on Smith as Baldwin and he does solid justice to the icon. It’s perfectly composed and yet his portrayal captures that underlying frustration and disappointment, it also touches upon the loneliness of celebrity which is a nice addition.

Laura Seay’s directorial style is exactly as you’d hope, the opening framing captures that air of the 1960s beautifully. It holds both an intimacy and an isolation, tapping into the pressurised situation between interviewer and interviewee, as well as the coldness of the setting. There’s a sharpness to the aesthetic, it uses both a simple back and forth, as well as adding in more stylised shots to keep a variety. The atmosphere embraces the power of Baldwin’s words and the underlying issues but it also feels strongly like a homage.

The Baldwin Archives is both a love letter to the legendary James Baldwin and an exploration of the unending racism and prejudice he faced. It highlights the bewildering fact that these types of conversations are still happening, that works by minorities are constantly undermined by the idea of not appealing to a wider audience, when it’s simply untrue and just another example of gatekeeping. Tory Devon Smith takes on the heavy task of representing such a legend with a wonderful composure and grace. It’s a simple but well constructed idea, that has plenty to say if you’re willing to look beneath the surface.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Screening at HollyShorts 2022 on August 15th at TCL Chinese Theatre

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