Michael Raeburn was in his early 30s when he first met James Baldwin in 1974, a chance encounter at the London book launch for If Beale Street Could Talk. Raeburn was an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter, with just one short film on his resume, while Baldwin was a literary giant, an essayist, and a civil rights activist. The connection between the two was instantaneous. “He was an extremely influential figure in my life,” Raeburn says. “We were very strangely connected in an almost psychic way. I knew when he would arrive somewhere—he’d travel to New York City, and I would be aware of when he’d arrive at his house.”
The decade was a transformative one in Baldwin’s life. Joyce Carol Oates penned a favorable review of Beale Street for the New York Times, writing the work of fiction was “timeless” and “ultimately optimistic”:
Baldwin constantly understates the horror of his characters’ situation in order to present them as human beings whom disaster has struck, rather than as blacks who have, typically, been victimized by whites and are therefore likely subjects for a novel…As society disintegrates in a collective sense, smaller human unity will become more and more important.
And yet, Beale Street was his first novel in nearly six years, and according to Raeburn, Baldwin felt trapped. “He didn’t want to be classified as a black writer or a homosexual writer. He was just a writer,” Raeburn explains. Baldwin was also lonely; he split much of his time living either in Paris or the south of France (along with Turkey) to distance himself and the particular brand of American racism and prejudice (as well as the demands for constant activism: he liked France because he “could think and…he wouldn’t be hassled to go on marches,” claims Raeburn). That separation also created a personal rift. As Raeburn told James Campbell, who wrote Talking at the Gates: The Life of James Baldwin, “There were plenty of people who could entertain him, or who he found attractive one way or another, but not many that he could talk to about books, or about a play, or about his current work.”
Baldwin’s bond to Raeburn, though, was his tether. The budding director was in the midst of writing a book about the political struggles and guerrilla movements in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa (titled Black Fire, it was ultimately published in 1978), and Raeburn’s literary background appealed to Baldwin. “We spoke endlessly about books,” he says, noting that he also shared Baldwin’s admiration of Marcel Proust, whose language Baldwin “found fascinating.” The two also connected on a more personal level, and what began as that chance encounter transformed into an on-and-off again relationship that lasted until Baldwin’s death in 1987. “I never experienced a relationship in terms of like the one with Jimmy,” says Raeburn. “He himself was staggered by all of it. There was a lot of Giovanni’s Room reflected in our relationship.”
The novel, which was published in 1956, is Baldwin’s gift to the French, as it was his only work ever set entirely in France: told in flashbacks, David, an American, meets Giovanni in Paris and falls in love with the Italian man, who works at a bar owned by Guillaume. Eventually, having been fired and unable to get his job back, Giovanni murders Giuillaume; Giovanni is sentenced to be executed. Meanwhile, in the novel’s present, David is engaged to marry a woman named Hella, but when she finds him in bed with another man, she confesses that she always knew David was gay; she returns to America, leaving David behind in the south of France. The novel’s examination of homosexuality, social alienation, and identity were extremely rare at the time, as was its core theme of questioning American exceptionalism, and the work closely aligned with how Baldwin felt at the time of the novel’s publication. (It also was criticized for the whiteness of its characters, a critique which Baldwin acknowledged to be indeed troublesome but unavoidable—”I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it,’’ he once said.)
Which is why Baldwin approached Raeburn to adapt his most beloved novel into a screenplay in 1978. “There are other ways we can love each other, why don’t you do a screenplay of Giovanni’s Room?,” Raeburn recalls. And thus began a project to develop the novel into a film, an endeavor that stretched over several years and would have possibly included an all-star cast of Robert De Niro (who was then interested in playing what an associate described as a “positive gay character“) and Marlon Brando (as Guillaume, owner of the Parisian gay bar). It would have been the first ever adaptation of one of Baldwin’s works—he had previously sought to adapt Another County (1962) and Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), but both films never progressed, and it wasn’t until PBS adapted Go Tell It On the Mountain in 1984 that a Baldwin-penned novel was produced for either television or film (Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, which debuts in late November and has already garnered massive Oscar buzz, is the second).
Baldwin always believed his works would translate well to other mediums, so it’s strange that there have been so few attempts to adapt his writings since his death. And even though Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the highly-acclaimed 2016 documentary, jump-started interest again in Baldwin—”After Jimmy passed, books started to disappear from shelves, but that doc was a sudden blast,” says Raeburn—James Baldwin’s estate appears to be moving slowly. According to Eileen Ahearn, the former assistant to Toni Morrison who currently oversees the estate, there will not be a rush of Baldwin-related material unleashed in the near future: “We have always been very cautious about movie rights, and especially with Beale Street about to come out, it is a very sensitive topic, and one I don’t want to discuss with a journalist.”
Though before Ahearn hung up, she did clarify that the moratorium also extended to any adaptations of Giovanni’s Room. “I get calls constantly about Giovanni’s Room, and I have for years, but [the estate] isn’t going to do anything at the moment,” she says. Which means that even though Raeburn has sat on a script for the past forty years, a script he co-wrote with Baldwin and one that features new characters and dialogue, and is one of the final remaining works of Baldwin’s legacy, he is still in a holding pattern. “Eileen told me to cool it at the moment,” he says, which is a difficult proposition for someone in his mid-70s. “The estate wants to see what happens with Beale Street,” he further explains. “They could sell everything Jimmy has written tomorrow, and then it would be a deluge [of films], and they believe it would be a disaster.”
He adds, “They are also rather nervous now about Giovanni’s Room, for reasons which I am not quite clear—it’s a story about race that isn’t disguised as a class story.” So Raeburn’s screenplay, which is housed in his London flat, currently lays dormant. “Jimmy wanted to make the film,” he says. “We did it out of the sincere commitment and belief that a good film would be made of this script.”
The collaborators began to meet around 1978—collaborating either in Paris or in Saint Paul de Vence, in southeastern France—to discuss how to transform a book told largely in flashbacks into a seamless script that wouldn’t confuse the audience: Raeburn sketched the narrative flow while Baldwin crafted the dialogue. “Jimmy is a novelist, not a screenwriter, so it would get a bit wordy,” explains Raeburn. “But his dialogue was always brilliant.”
More than 20 years after he first published the novel, Baldwin felt it time to address the text’s lack of diversity, which he sought to reflect in the screenplay. The new characters—friends of Giovanni at the bar—would both add complementary voices while also potentially silencing those critics who harped about the novel’s overall whiteness. This initial foray into adapting the novel would hopefully provide a roadmap of how to get past the book’s opening, which features Giovanni’s impending execution. “We were grappling with structure. We wanted to get to the end of a very rough draft because then we could start again,” says Raeburn. “Jimmy understood that, but he would still keep saying, ‘There is too much of this thing at the beginning,’ to which I’d respond, ‘We’ll deal with it, but let’s get to the end first!'”
Raeburn recalls that the first draft abruptly ended on page 80, about three-quarters through the novel, with Baldwin adding to the script:
David says ‘merci beaucoup’. David picks up his glass and toasts the surprised waiter…[and] he starts tapping out a song which he also hums.
At which point, Raeburn wrote, “To be continued!!” It never was. “I couldn’t get anyone interested in the project,” he says. “People weren’t willing to watch a homosexual love story back then. They couldn’t get their heads around it.” Though the work didn’t necessarily stop—Baldwin met with Marlon Brando around 1979 to discuss the actor possibly playing Guillaume. “With Marlon on board, anything was possible,” says Raeburn. The three met at a private hotel on the left bank in the Quartier Latin where Brando was staying, and bypassed the paparazzi by sneaking out of the compound in an unmarked taxi. The group drove around Paris for two hours discussing Giovanni’s Room; by the end of the ride, Raeburn says Brando had signed on to the project.
The impact was instantaneous. Baldwin and Raeburn sketched out a second, 211-page draft of “clean, presentable text” which they intended to present to Brando and possibly De Niro—at the Deauville Film Festival (attended by both Baldwin and Raeburn), a purported friend of the actor’s mentioned he was interested in roles outside of his comfort zone. But before they could build any further momentum—”We had finally figured out the direction we wanted to take”—Raeburn learned of an unexpected complication: Jay Acton, Baldwin’s literary agent, demanded $100,000 for the book’s option.
“Jimmy was furious—he felt like he was a prisoner of his agent,” Raeburn says. “We could go on writing quite happily, but never get anywhere unless came up with $100,000.” Neither Raeburn nor Baldwin had access to that sort of financing, which meant no De Niro or Brandon—there could be no official contracts without first securing the option. And so Raeburn shelved the script. The plan was to take it up again when the time was right, but when Baldwin died in 1987, it had been six years since the two met to discuss Giovanni’s Room.
“The whole thing is still a work in progress,” Raeburn says.
But the renewed interest in Baldwin’s works, coalescing around If Beale Street Could Talk, has reinvigorated Raeburn’s efforts to finally complete the screenplay—the only draft in existence with original dialogue from Baldwin—and actually make the film. Raeburn says he has spoken with Ahearn, who advised him to “start over from zero,” but the director hopes to make make a more personal pitch: allow him to option the book for a year. “It’s so much more possible to make this film today,” he says. “Jimmy didn’t want to make a studio film. He wanted to make a film that has a French feel with subtitles.”
He continues, “Jimmy would be delighted, and they owe it to him.”