Created by and starring Tory Devon Smith, The Baldwin Archives, which receives its US premiere at the 40th anniversary Outfest LGBTQ+ Film Festival, breathes new life into a 1963 interview with James Baldwin (Tory Devon Smith) conducted in London for the BBC by journalist Peter Duval Smith (Jordan Gavaris). Taking the concept of films like Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirely, The Baldwin Archives doesn’t simply recreate sections of the real-life interview itself, but immerses us in brief but atmospheric and intimate moments with Baldwin and Smith before and after. One of the most striking, being a gorgeous and emotionally resonant shot of Smith as Baldwin from behind as he smokes.
Director Laura Seay focuses on the reactions and unspoken interplay between interviewee and inquisitor, creating something delicate yet compelling, while John Orphan’s rich and crisp cinematography draws us in with extreme closeups on the actors’ expressive faces. There’s some masterful editing by Alex Splice Jones which gives the film a beautifully unhurried flow, while maintaining the tension. A tension that is enhanced by Coerce Smith’s smoky jazz score that plays throughout.
Despite the nicely detailed period trappings, thanks to costume and production design by Alex Nelson, the film feels in-the-moment and immediate, with us hanging on Baldwin’s every word. What we hear Baldwin say about the impact of racism sears with as much relevance and persuasive intensity today as it did over half a century ago. Given how familiar we are with Baldwin’s idiosyncratic mannerisms and delivery, Smith’s performance feels vocally and physically accurate, but crucially doesn’t read as an imitation. Instead, though he is clearly reverential towards his mighty subject, the actor appears to have found a freedom in his portrayal that keeps him loose and allows for some detailed and nuanced work. Captivatingly introspective, Smith’s Baldwin feels like living, breathing creation; a man of fierce intellect, with a dignified restraint aimed at helping to get his points across more persuasively. Jordan Gavaris has found a similar freedom with his portrayal of Peter Duval Smith. There’s no sense that the actor is judging or sitting at a distance from the character and his outlook, imbuing him with a sharpness and attentiveness, that allows the two actors to spar engagingly with one another.
A work of subtle power, that urges us to continue to heed his words, The Baldwin Archives is dedicated to “Jimmy”, and fittingly given the crux of the writer’s argument in the interview, it feels like a tribute to Baldwin the human, as much as Baldwin the great mind. It’s also a strong showcase for this creative team, particularly Tory Devon Smith’s considerable talents.
By James Kleinmann
The Baldwin Archives receives its US Premiere at the 40th anniversary Outfest LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Tuesday, July 19th 2022 at 7pm as part of the Our Truth, Our History shorts program, and is available to stream online from July 20th 8am until July 22nd at 8am. For more details on the film and social media links, head to the official website.