Bookish Art: The Price of the Ticket (A Documentary of James Baldwin)

February 06, 2016

Three weeks ago, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I had the good fortune of attending a free screening of the stunning James Baldwin documentary The Price of the Ticket. In just under 90 minutes, the film tells the story of the iconic writer's life, from his earliest days in Harlem to his death by stomach cancer in 1987, and all of the stories, essays and novels that he produced in between. The film was followed by a discussion with writer, producer and director Karen Thorsen.

  "There Are Days When You Wonder" from DKDMedia on Vimeo.

Having scarcely scratched the surface of Baldwin's oeuvre with Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time, I went into the film with a limited knowledge of the man. (Fun fact: Either it doesn't come up in those collections or I was asleep while reading them, but I had no idea that Baldwin was gay. Thanks for informing me, The Price of the Ticket!) I walked out in awe, not the least because of how much we got to see of Baldwin himself. There is a lot of archival footage and photography of James Baldwin out there, and not just from his television interviews. I guess that's what happens when you make friends with a bunch of visual artists. (Another fun fact: Baldwin agreed to be filmed for a student's thesis, which resulted in a super staged shot of him getting out of bed in his tighty whities.)

When she set out to make her film, Thorsen did not know that some of the first footage she would end up shooting would be at Baldwin's funeral. Paraphrasing the website and Thorsen's own commentary at the screening, she had originally intended to make a film with Baldwin about the process of writing his next book. They made this plan in 1986. The following year, Baldwin was dead, but not before personally mailing Thorsen a letter apologizing that he would no longer be able to be involved with the film. Instead, Thorsen crafted a portrait of Baldwin as told in his own words and the words of those he worked with and those he loved (and who loved him). More often than not, those two latter categories overlapped.

To promote its recent digital restoration, Thorsen and The Price of the Ticket are currently touring the country. Even if you've never read any of Baldwin's work, I highly encourage you to see it if it ends up near you. Not only is the film itself a masterly slice of personal, cultural, and literary history, but the discussion afterward—the anecdotes and thoughts of the film creators and audience members—will stay with you. Hence why I'm writing about this nearly a month later!

Have any of your seen The Price of the Ticket or read any James Baldwin? Any other excellent literary documentaries you'd recommend to me?

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