From James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, an indispensable work of not only film criticism but social commentary. I inhaled it in one sitting. I refer to it often. Here he is on the effect seeing Bette Davis on the screen for the first time had on him as a small boy. A white schoolteacher (female, although everyone called her “Bill”) befriended young James and introduced him to cinema, theatre, and literature. (I realize that some may read this and want to defend Bette Davis’ beauty, but he is going after a much deeper point, much more important than whether or not Bette Davis is beautiful. I had not read this essay at the time I wrote this one, about Stuart Little, but it is the same sentiment. Fiction, movies, are powerful. No wonder artists are often the first on the chopping block in dictatorships. This shit can change lives, can, to quote Lorna Moon in Golden Boy, “stiffen the space between [our] shoulder blades”.)
My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. But it was not my father’s hatred of my frog-eyes which hurt me, this hatred proving, in time, to be rather more resounding than real: I have my mother’s eyes. When my father called me ugly, he was not attacking me so much as he was attacking my mother. (No doubt, he was also attacking my real, and unknown, father.) And I loved my mother. I knew that she loved me, and I sensed that she was paying an enormous price for me. I was a boy, and so I didn’t really too much care that my father thought me hideous. (So I said to myself – this judgment, nevertheless, was to have a decidedly terrifying effect on my life.) But I thought that he must have been stricken blind (or was as mysteriously wicked as white people, a paralyzing thought) if he was unable to see that my mother was absolutely beyond any question the most beautiful woman in the world.
So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded. I had caught my father, not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly. I felt exactly the same way I felt, just before this moment, or just after, when I was in the street, playing, and I saw an old, very black, and very drunk woman stumbling up the sidewalk, and I ran upstairs to make my mother come to the window and see what I had found: You see? You see? She’s uglier than you, Mama! She’s uglier than me! Out of bewilderment, out of loyalty to my mother, probably, and also because I sensed something menacing and unhealthy (for me, certainly) in the face on the screen, I gave Davis’s skin the dead-white greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held, just the same, by the tense intelligence of the forehead, the disaster of the lips: and when she moved, she moved just like a nigger. Eventually, from a hospital bed, she murders someone, and [Spencer] Tracy takes the weight, to Sing Sing. In his arms, Davis cries and cries, and the movie ends. “What’s going to happen to her now?” I asked Bill Miller. “We don’t know,” said Bill, conveying to me, nevertheless, that she would probably never get over it, that people pay for what they do.
I had not yet heard Bessie Smith’s “why they call this place the Sing Sing?/Come stand here by this rock pile, and listen to these hammers ring,” and it would be seven years before I would begin working on the railroad. It was to take a longer time than that before I would cry; a longer time than that before I would cry in anyone’s arms; and a long long long long time before I would begin to realize what I myself was doing with my enormous eyes – or vice versa. This had nothing to do with Davis, the actress, or with all those hang-ups I didn’t yet know I had: I had discovered that my infirmity might not be my doom; my infirmity, or infirmities, might be forged into weapons.