Who's the greatest American movie critic?
A lot of folks probably would say Pauline Kael or David Bordwell or Manny Farber; some might argue for more academic writers like Linda Williams, Stanley Cavell, or Carol Clover. For me, though, it's an easy question. The greatest film critic ever is James Baldwin.
Baldwin is generally celebrated for his novels and (as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently) his personal essays. But he wrote criticism as well. Mostly this was in the form of short reviews. There is, though, a major exception: his book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, one of the most powerful examples ever of how writing about art can, itself, be art.
Published in 1976, the piece can’t be categorized. It's a memoir of Baldwin's life watching, or influenced by, or next to cinema. It's a critique of the racial politics of American (and European) film. And it's a work of film theory, with Baldwin illuminating issues of gaze and identification in brief, lucid bursts. The dangerous appeal of cinema, he writes, can be to escape—"surrendering to the corroboration of one's fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen" And "no one,” he acidly adds, “makes his escape personality black."
The themes of race, film, and truth circle around one another throughout the essay's hundred pages, as Baldwin attempts to reconcile the cinema he loves, which represents the country he loves, with its duplicity and faithlessness. In one memorable description of the McCarthy era midway through the essay, he marvels at "the slimy depths to which the bulk of white Americans allowed themselves to sink: noisily, gracelessly, flatulent and foul with patriotism." It's clear Baldwin believes that description can often be applied to American cinema as well—whether it's the false self-congratulatory liberal Hollywood pap of The Heat of the Night or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or the travesty made of Billie Holiday's life in Lady Sings the Blues, the script of which, Baldwin says, "Is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous."