James Baldwin on identity

The Devil Finds Work (1976) could be summarised as a series of essays on film and its troubling relationship with race. I love the clarity and beauty of Baldwin’s writing, and find the book thought-provoking and full of insight. Here are two of his reflections on the question of identity.

“…a victims may or may not have a color, just as he may or may not have a virtue: a difficult, not to say unpopular notion, for nearly everyone prefers to be defined by his status, which, unlike his virtue, is ready to wear“ (p. 10, bridging discussions of Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the American South as victim, and A Tale of Two Cities).

“An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change clothes” (p. 77, introducing a dissection of Lawrence of Arabia).

Adult education goes to Hollywood


Recently my Sunday newspaper reviewed Night School, a comedy with a touch of romance set in Atlanta. It’s plot centres on a high school dropout who for linked reasons of career and the heart returns as an adult to study for his General Education Development (GED) Certificate.

In spite of its highly-regarded cast and an established director, the film isn’t likely to win an Oscar or become a cult classic. The movie website Rotten Tomatoes summarised it as a ‘disappointingly scattershot comedy’ while the New York Times found it a ragged comedy’ and the London Times attacked its ‘long out-dated streak of sexism’.

Much as I love films, I’ve not seen it and have no plans to. But I certainly think it is an interesting phenomenon and would love to know how audiences respond to its setting, as well as to its fundamental belief that a motley group of mid-life American oddballs will see adult education as the solution to their problems.

With few exceptions, it’s unusual for adult education to feature as a central plot device in a mainstream movie, let alone one that is currently playing at my local Odeon and Vue theatres. As Emily Yoshida wrote in her review, this makes the film stand out all the more, by portraying

A group of working class Americans optimistic enough to believe that a high school diploma might be the key to turning their lives around, no matter how far into them they are.

Whether this good-hearted intention is enough to rescue the film from its frailties is a matter of opinion. I’ll watch it if and when it turns up on tv, terrestrial or streamed, but until then even the hook of a (black ) Hollywood take on adult education won’t part me from my money.

More interesting for me is the way in which the filmmakers make assumptions about audience understandings of adult education; and the possible impact of the film on audiences’ attitudes towards adult education. Meanwhile, you can watch the trailer here.