The Contemporary Essay / The Essay in Close-Up / Lola Boorman

Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.

Joan Didion’s now infamous account of the unravelling counterculture in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1967), begins with the act of looking. Or, rather, it begins with the failures of looking:

I am looking for somebody called Deadeye (all single names in this story are fictitious; full names are real), and I hear he is on the Street this afternoon doing a little business, so I keep an eye out for him and pretend to read the signs in the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street when a kid, 16, 17, comes in and sits on the floor beside me.

“What are you looking for?” he says.

I say nothing much.1

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” has been lauded, at its time of publication and since, for the directness of its view on the ailing “hippie” counterculture, an essay that ends, notoriously, with Didion’s levelled depiction of a five-year-old child “on acid.” Didion’s positionality throughout is seemingly that of an impartial observer, embodying the journalistic “impersonal eye.”

But Didion’s gaze is not wholly neutral. Nor is it strictly a cultivation of New Journalism’s hallmark subjectivity. This scene stages the journalist’s (and essayist’s) unwillingness to bear witness. Didion seems as disinterested in seeking out her story (in “read[ing] the signs” of this particular cultural moment) as her subject, the tellingly nicknamed “Deadeye,” seems to be able to provide insight. Despite cultivating a position of a passive and impartial observer in her encounters with her subjects and surroundings, a twentieth century version of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” the moments in the essay that stand out are those where Didion averts her gaze, moments that subtly reveal her muted political disdain for the chaos of counterculture (“The center was not holding”). Later in the essay, when meeting a skeptical source, Didion removes her sunglasses, “so he can see my eyes,” a move designed to instill trust both in her journalistic integrity and her humanity. Her source leaves his sunglasses on: “‘How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?’ he says for openers.” Rebuffed, Didion “put [her] dark glasses back on,” wary of being seen too clearly.

Accounts of the essay frequently stress the “voiced” quality of the form, its origins in the lecture or in conversation. The act of looking—even when discussing the essay’s visual offshoots (the essay film, the video essay, the photo essay)—is rarely a central feature in how scholars theorize the essay.2 It is telling that Hilton Als titles his obituary and survey of Didion’s work in the New Yorker, “Joan Didion and the Voice of America,” even though one of his most striking readings of Didion, highlighting her treatment of race, centers on the act of looking. Reading the final scene in Golden Gate Park in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” in which a number of hippies in blackface encircle a Black man, prodding him with sticks and asking him “What’d America ever do for you?” as other Black people and, presumably, Didion herself, stand on the edge of the circle “reading the signs and watching.” Als argues, “To begin with, this section—along with the rest of the piece—is a primer about looking. Didion is learning to see purely, which is to say, without performing a minstrel show of womanhood or making herself a character in the story.”3 Als’ willingness to claim Didion as an unacknowledged witness of American race relations perhaps obscures the political intricacies of the act of looking plays in her work. If “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” places looking at the center of its formal and political program, it does so precisely to articulate the often uncomfortable tension between looking as an active means of uncovering its “story” and as a method of political and positional diversion.

On the other side of the 1960s, James Baldwin was developing his own philosophy of looking to diagnose America’s race relations after Civil Rights. This philosophy came in the form of a book of film criticism called The Devil Finds Work (1976). Devil is less well-known than Baldwin’s other non-fiction, even though it returns to many of his previous themes with perhaps a more urgent and fraught tension between optimism and pessimism that arises from the waning political triumph of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of 1964 and 1965.

Readers will perhaps have been become acquainted with Baldwin’s writing on film via Raoul Peck’s 2017 film, I Am Not Your Negro. While widely classed as a documentary, I want to explore Peck’s genre-bending work as an essayistic adaption of Baldwin’s longform essay, one that seeks to embody and complete his philosophy of looking. The narration of the film is drawn in significant parts from Baldwin’s unfinished and unpublished manuscript, Remember This House, a memoir of the Civil Rights movement told through Baldwin’s relationship to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were murdered within a five-year period. Baldwin’s words, read in the film by Samuel L. Jackson, are used to overlay a series of photographs, film clips, advertisements, and informational videos that create an ironic tension between American racial violence and what Baldwin calls the “self-perpetuating fantasy of American life.”4

While Remember This House provides the frame for I Am Not Your Negro, the film draws more heavily from The Devil Finds Work, in which Baldwin interrogates Hollywood’s racial imaginary. Indeed, I Am Not Your Negro can be read as an attempt to resolve some of the problems of film adaptation that Baldwin writes about in the essay itself, which he describes as a kind of cinematic “violence to the written word.”5 The film is also largely an attempt to convey and represent Baldwin’s philosophical and ethical position through an interpretation of his essayistic style. In thinking through the relationship between Peck and Baldwin, I draw on Nora Alter’s definition of the “essay film” as “filmed philosophy,” which is often formally achieved through the disruption of conventional filmic and narrative techniques, and is “not just a mode a of producing” film, “it is a method of reading, viewing and interpreting.”6 Both Peck and Baldwin use the essayistic to engender a mode of viewing that wills to become philosophy. For Peck this process is more complicated as he works to replicate and complete Baldwin’s dynamics of seeing in the act of filmmaking, deconstructing these ways of looking even as he creates them.

In contrast to Didion’s averted, shielded or impartial act of “watching,” Baldwin’s analysis repeatedly homes in on a series of close-up shots in several popular Hollywood films. These close-ups, produce, for Baldwin, a profound rupture in the fantasy of the film and generate a kind of ethical encounter with the real, a means of both recognizing and momentarily transgressing the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. The first of these moments comes at the beginning of the essay when Baldwin describes one of his early encounters with cinema, which results in a moment of queer identification with Bette Davis: “on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded.”7

This moment of cross-racial reflection becomes an occasion of intersubjective encounter, one that produces feelings of recognition and empowerment intermingled with shame and disorientation. But elsewhere in The Devil Finds Work Baldwin struggles to disentangle this close-up from the dangerous habits of evasion perpetuated in the filmic gaze. In an analysis of Stanley Kramer’s 1958 thriller The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, Baldwin interrogates the film’s liberal racial politics that depend on the black character’s feigned unknowingness and his function as a means of redemption for the white man.

A single close-up of Poitier, however “smashes the film to pieces” and brings the actor into an act of mutual recognition with his audience that momentarily ruptures the fantasy of the film’s premise and its ambitions towards racial reconciliation. These kinds of encounters are moments where the other demands recognition, demands to be seen, to be “faced” and “embraced”—in Baldwin’s terms. As Ryan Jay Friedman argues,

In the facial close-ups that Baldwin describes as “indelible moments,” the film actor appears to return the viewers gaze, thus expressing the uncanny sense that the character on screen remains a subject existentially distinct from him or her, one with whom the viewer can imagine a relationship of mutual response, or re-creation. Such shots do not invite the viewer to misrecognize him- or herself in the character, through the imaginary mechanism of identification. By the same token, these shots resist the viewers attempt to reduce the characters to entities emanating from the viewers fantasies.8

These moments of encounter, these close-ups that disrupt the fantasy of the film, have the potential to become acts of love, a notion that resonates with Baldwin’s famous appeal in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region of My Mind” for the “racially conscious” to act “like lovers” in order to “insist on, or create, the consciousness of others.” These potentially “radical” acts of “intersubjective love” are degraded and weaponized by Hollywood’s perverse sexual and racial politics.9 In a reading of the final scene in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) Baldwin interprets the final gaze between Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s semi-reformed police chief as a classic “fade out kiss,” which evacuates this encounter of any kind of love, sexual or ethical, working, instead, to establish a false reconciliation for white liberal audiences. This, for Baldwin, is a kind of “pornography” that he defines as a mixture of “fantasy” and “hope.”10

In his adaptation—or inhabitation—of Baldwin’s essay Peck deploys essayistic style in a number of ways, most notably in how he tries to capture the digression of the essayist through the film’s audiovisual shifts, its disruptive chronologies and lines of argument. But I am mainly interested here in how Peck’s film seeks to embed moments of rupture and mutual encounter into the structure and method of its filmmaking, taking direct inspiration from Baldwin’s analysis of film, and its politics of looking.

Throughout the film Peck relies more heavily on photography than filmed, documentary footage but controls and directs the viewer’s gaze by panning and zooming in and out of a series of photographs, transforming them from wide-angle shots to close-ups that force the audience into an encounter with the subject. These images also include close-ups of the faces of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr after their assassination, which weigh against photographs of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and other young victims of racial violence and police brutality in the twenty-first century. These direct moments of encounter, in which Peck mines a close-up and constructs a mutual gaze out of still images (many of them iconic), are juxtaposed with a series of still images, seemingly Kodak advertisements, that Peck transforms into moving images illustrating the distortion of the white gaze through the camera lens.

These images act as a distorted mirror of the film’s documentation of racial violence. In a sequence near the end of the film, a series of graphic photographs of lynched men and women are shown before Peck performs another of his enforced close-ups on two white men in the crowd. Baldwin’s words play in the background: “You cannot lynch me or keep me in the ghetto, without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Peck’s manipulation of the still image and his animation of what Susan Sontag called photography’s “ethics of seeing,” here inserts Baldwin’s critique of looking into the visual grammar of filmmaking. As Sontag suggests, when “photographs are transcribed in film” they “cease to be collectible objects” and instead contribute as “evidence” and “ethics.”11

For Baldwin, this philosophy of looking must necessarily break out of the screen and integrate itself into the politics of daily life. Peck renders this desire in a scene in I Am Not Your Negro, taken from Remember This House in which Baldwin recounts giving a lecture and seeing Malcolm X in the front row “bending forward at such an angle that his arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me.” Baldwin’s description of Malcolm X’s absorption, a form of observation that involves his entire physical posture, chimes with what Friedman identifies in The Devil Finds Work as the phenomena of the “embodied viewer.”12 When Baldwin realizes he is being watched he “panicked,” having been suspicious of Malcolm X’s politics. The mutual distrust between the two figures, their dissonant ideologies (albeit intersecting objectives) dissolves in Malcolm X’s steady gaze: “I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from my face.” While there is no lack of photographs of Malcolm X and James Baldwin in this period, no particular image documents this meeting, or any other, between the two men in Peck’s film. Translating this encounter into I Am Not Your Negro, Peck performs Baldwin’s discomfort at being observed, being the object of attention of a man who is so firmly in the public eye. The screen fills with a montage of photographs of Malcolm X, almost all in close-up. The final image in the sequence shows him holding a camera.

Peck’s moments of direct encounter construct the viewer as a witness—something that, in Baldwin’s own account of his role in the Civil Rights movement, involves an act of looking that brings one forward into an ethical understanding of one’s own inaction. In uncovering and staging a series of “looks,” Peck activates the viewer in a way that captures the contradiction between transformative action and inaction or outsider-ness at the heart of Baldwin’s definition of witness. Peck’s camera work invites or, rather, pushes us into these ethical encounters, completing or “essaying” Baldwin’s philosophical position in filmic form.

The essay, as Baldwin, Peck and Didion have it, dramatizes the difficulties of looking, of bearing witness, of shattering illusion, the temptation of diverting our gaze. The essay is often thought of, paradoxically, as both a distraction from more serious endeavors and an object of focused attention. So many good essays begin with something catching the essayist’s eye, however minor or fleeting. The essay’s rigor—another characteristic that is up for debate—is often that of a passing fancy, a momentary obsession that never quite follows through on its investigation. In The Devil Finds Work Baldwin resituates the subject of the essayist. It is not so much about what the essay looks at (in this case the cultural product of the Hollywood film) as about how the essay looks, the process of looking that the essay both exposes and remakes anew. This interrogation of seeing and the alternative form of looking that Baldwin essay and Peck’s adaptation provides becomes, as Sontag claims, a means “putting oneself in a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”13

: :

This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.

: :


  1. Joan Didion, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” The Saturday Evening Post, 14 June 2017,, accessed 17 March 2022.
  2. Christy Wampole bucks this trend in her investigation of surrealist visual art and the essay form. See “Dali’s Montaigne,” in On Essays: Montaigne to the Present ed. Kathryn Murphy and Thomas Karshan (Oxford: OUP, 2020). Kathryn Murphy’s own contribution to this cluster also considers the dynamics of looking through Emily Ogden’s work.
  3. Hilton Als, “Joan Didion and the Voice of America,” New Yorker, 29 December 2021,, accessed 17 March 2022.
  4. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (London: Vintage, 2017), 57.
  5. Baldwin, 112.
  6. Nora Alter, The Essay Film After Fact and Fiction (New York: Columbia UP, 2018), 5; 16.
  7. Baldwin, 8.
  8. Ryan Ray Friedman, “‘Enough Force to Shatter the Tale to Fragments’: Ethics and Textual Analysis in James Baldwin’s Film Theory,” ELH 77: 2 (2010): 386.
  9. Friedman, 385.
  10. Baldwin, 57.
  11. Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin 1978), 3; 5.
  12. Friedman, 387.
  13. Sontag, 4.