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Baldwin in Bristol

James Baldwin 2024

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In partnership with arts and cultural organisations around the city, Bristol Ideas has launched a series of films, spoken word events, performances and panel discussions to celebrate the life and work of James Baldwin ahead of the centenary of the birth of the great American writer and civil rights activist in 2024.

Ahead of James Baldwin’s 100th anniversary in 2024, Bristol Ideas is joining forces with various arts and culture organisations around Bristol to host Baldwin in Bristol, a long weekend of events (19-22 October) around the city celebrating the life and work of the great writer.

James Baldwin – one of the best, most passionate, honest and committed writers of the 20th century – remains essential reading 26 years after his death. His novels and essays made a significant impact on the culture in his time and are more relevant today than ever. He taught generations of readers and campaigners the realities of racism and how we might find ways to move forwards.

From 19-22 October, Bristol will play host to a performance of the american vicarious’s radically staged production of Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley, a cabaret night of poetry, dance and drag celebrating the great writer, and an exploration of Baldwin and cities on film. Baldwin in Bristol is presented by Bristol Ideas in partnership with the american vicarious, Arnolfini, Bristol Old Vic, Film Noir UK, Raise the Bar, Watershed and Words of Colour and is made possible with support from the BFI FAN Audience Fund, Arts Council England and others.

On 19 October, Bristol Ideas and Film Noir UK will present a screening of the 1951 film Native Son at Watershed. Based on the 1940 novel by Richard Wright, Native Son exposed the injustices of urban African-American life at the time. The author himself plays the lead role of Bigger Thomas, whose violent tendencies and moral confusion were the natural result of a lifetime of deprivation. James Baldwin went on to offer a sharp critique of the novel in his breakthrough essay collection, Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955. Set in Harlem in the 1940s, the collection captures the complexity of Black life at the dawn of the civil rights movement. 

In the second part of this exploration of Baldwin and cities (on 20 October), Bristol Ideas has organised a film and discussion event at Watershed, featuring three short documentary films by and about James Baldwin. Baldwin was born in Harlem, but spent much of his life outside the US. The three films screened as part of this event – Baldwin’s N****r (1968), Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971) and James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973) – cover Baldwin’s life and work in Istanbul, London and Paris. They highlight various aspects of Baldwin’s influences and life, from his upbringing as a child-minister, love and sexuality, freedom, Black power, his writing and how to be a writer, and racism in America. Writers and artists will reflect on the films throughout the evening.

On 21 October, Words of Colour welcomes writers and creatives to The Creators Space, a workshop on craft and creative activism at Arnolfini. That evening, they join forces with Raise the Bar to bring audiences Conversations with Baldwin: LIVE – a cabaret of poetry, dance and drag celebrating the work of James Baldwin. The line-up features Deepraj Singh, Ernest the Drag King, Muneera Pilgrim and Saili Katebe, along with other special guests. This is part of the broader Conversations with Baldwin Arts Festival being run by Words of Colour across Bristol and London. They will also be hosting the Conversations with Baldwin Film Club, an engaging night of cinema and discussion on Tuesday 17 October at The Cube Microplex, with a screening of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016).

The final event in the Baldwin in Bristol programme is a performance of Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley presented by the american vicarious and Bristol Ideas at Bristol Old Vic. Following a critically acclaimed run in New York City, the play received its UK premiere in London earlier this year. It reenacts the historic debate between James Baldwin and William F Buckley Jr at the Cambridge Union in 1965, in which Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, was pitched against Buckley, a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual, to answer the question: ‘Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?’. The performance will be followed by a discussion with the actors involved in the production. After its performance in Bristol, the play will move to Cambridge to be performed at the Cambridge Union. 

Alongside this, Bristol Ideas has commissioned a series of 12 essays by leading writers including Nikesh Shukla, Mendez, Vanessa Kisuule, Inua Ellams and Sharmaine Lovegrove, who will give personal reflections on the enduring legacy of Baldwin’s life and work. These will be released in October to coincide with the celebrations.

Photo credit: Buzzy Enterprises

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