Everyone's a Critic, but James Baldwin May Be the Greatest American Movie Critic Ever

leadCritics: to some filmmakers, they're a dirty word. To others, they can be career-makers. In the past, a critic's basic role was one-part help the average person decide what movie to see that evening, one-part reflect on society through film theory. In today's landscape of user ratings on IMDB and Netflix, is there more room to focus on the latter? In a breakdown below of his recent article, Noah Berlatsky of the Atlantic suggests that future film critics (and filmmakers) look to the author behind The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written for ideas on elevating criticism itself to a form of art.

Maybe you've read Manny Farber; surely you know Siskel & Ebert. But of all the critics to have carved careers out of their work, Noah Berlatsky suggests one person who he sees as the greatest American movie critic: James Baldwin. A renowned essayist, in 1976 Baldwin published a book titled The Devil Finds Work about film, race, and America. As Berlatsky describes it in the Atlantic article:

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."

In his time, Baldwin's book was met with mixed reviews. (How fitting!) A 1976 New York Times review characterized it as having "an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical." Written in an unorthodox (read: not academic) style, The Devil Finds Work covers films like In the Heat of the NightGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The ExorcistBaldwin may not had been the only one to identify the racial subtext in the film, but he may have been the first. An excerpt included in the Atlantic from Baldwin's book:

james baldwin the devil finds work

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks -- many, many others, including white children -- can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

Berlatsky goes on to explain why he thinks excerpt above transform a film for the better in the full article.

When I was younger, I made the mistake of equating the writing of blustery, annihilating reviews as proof that you, indeed, had a good sense of what "real cinema" should be about. (I chalk part of this to the influence of reading Truffaut: A Biography where I decided that good filmmakers should start off being harsh critics and bandying about the word "cinema" a lot.)

Then of course, I actually endeavoured to make a film, and revised my stance. Perhaps some of you have similar experiences? Berlatsky's article brought to my attention a critic who I hadn't heard much about, and brought up the idea that criticism can be more than just coming up with a review, it can be art! If you're interesting in looking at one end of film criticism spectrum, or thinking about film theory in the USA, The Devil Finds Work is worth checking out.

Are you familiar with James Baldwin, or have other critics you admire? What do you think the role of film critic should be today?

Link: The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written -- The Atlantic

[via Filmmaker IQ]

Your Comment


Hulk at Badassdisgest is very good as well. It's difficult to read one of his legthy articles and not ending agreeing on most things.

April 10, 2014 at 8:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Álex Montoya

How interesting. I haven't heard much about Baldwin either. Just bought the book!
Thanks for sharing this.

April 10, 2014 at 8:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I know I'm going to sound like a jerk but please proofread your articles. I'm mostly taking my frustration with RedShark News out on you. It's a free-for-all over there. Don't be like those guys.

April 10, 2014 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


There's no such thing as a good critic, except maybe Mark Kermode.

April 10, 2014 at 10:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

filthy punt

I worked for the firm that handled publicity for the late 1950's West Coast Premiere of James Baldwin's play, "Amen Corners." I had the privilege of having long conversations with him in his temporary Hollywood apartment on several afternoons. I was producing a black education series that went nowhere, and asked if he'd be the subject of the series pilot. He responded, "“You are one brave producer. I don’t think you’d get the support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offering up a radical gay black man as a role model for children. Surely you can find a better candidate." This conversation is in Chapter 11 of my novel "Cleo." During those three afternoons, we talked for hours about the role films and other media played in suppressing racial, economic, and political equality worldwide. I had hoped my series would offer role models of successful black Americans in science, arts, and politics, as opposed to only sports and entertainment, but no one, white or black, wanted to finance the series at that time.

April 10, 2014 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Nothing in this article leads me to believe that Baldwin is the greatest american movie critic ever. An interesting and engaging one maybe.

April 10, 2014 at 1:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


How this compare with Ebert's "I hated, hated, hated this movie"?

April 10, 2014 at 1:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


It's an interesting article. But when I think of the "greatest american movie critic," Pauline Kael is nowhere near the top of my list - some of her arguments against the auteur theory really showed her weaknesses IMHO. And I find it interesting that Berlatsky infers that David Bordwell is not a very "academic" critic, not sure what that's all about.

April 10, 2014 at 2:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

David James

So he is the greatest film critic because he looks at film with egalitarian-dogma goggles on to find complaints?

April 10, 2014 at 9:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


In India we have got few film makers they did film criticism Directors like KUMAR SHAHANI, MANI KAUL, But very effectvely presented in the line of Marxism..by mr.ka. Sivathambi from Colombo. and Theatre and Film criticism by Mr. venkat swaminathan is from other Extrem.

April 10, 2014 at 11:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The beloved James Baldwin .He is unique . I'll definitely read this book as I'm in love with the cinema & the author both.

April 12, 2014 at 7:18AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Jonathan Rosenbaum was the best before he had to retire. He's like Andre Bazin.

June 15, 2014 at 10:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Have we lost the distinction between a "reviewer" and a "critic"?

December 31, 2015 at 6:43PM