In a New York Times article published a few days before the release of the 1985 TV movie version of Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin, author of the 1953 book, is quoted as saying, “I am very, very happy about [the movie}. It didn’t betray the book.” It didn’t? True, many present-day scenes display the tension within the Grimes family, while flashbacks convey the sources of the tension. Still, much in the book has been cut or altered in the TV movie version, in a way that significantly lessens the impact of the narrative.
A lot of the movie happens in flashback, and the flashbacks are similar to those in the book. The main information is provided. Deborah (CCH Pounder), a young black woman, is raped by a gang of white men. Her friend Florence (Rosalind Cash) leaves behind her dying mother and sinful brother, Gabriel, who later finds redemption, becomes a preacher, and Deborah’s husband (Ving Rhames). While a preacher and husband, Gabriel is seduced by Esther (Alfre Woodard), who gives birth to a boy, Royal, later killed by a gang of white men. Deborah makes known to Gabriel her belief that Royal (Kadeem Hardison) was Gabriel’s son, despite Gabriel’s denial of kinship. In New York, Florence introduces Elizabeth (Ruby Dee), pregnant and suddenly single, to Gabriel, who has recently moved to New York, after Deborah’s death. Gabriel (now, Paul Winfield) vows to cherish Elizabeth’s son as his own (which he doesn’t). All of this essential information is, however, foreshortened, making it relatively painless, and the painfulness of the flashbacks is a large part of their significance—
In one instance, pregnant Elizabeth is suddenly single, because her lover Richard has killed himself, after a wrongful arrest based on racial profiling. The painfulness of such a wrongful arrest is surely significant. But it is cut from the TV movie version, in which the focus is almost exclusively on Elizabeth’s single motherhood. And not only is the wrongful arrest of Richard cut from the movie version but also Richard’s entire relationship with Elizabeth, flirtation onward. In Baldwin’s book, their relationship spans a dozen pages, from “She had never seen him smile before” to “…he looked so young and defenseless as he walked away, and yet so jaunty and strong.” (Baldwin, p. 186, p. 198). Between these times, Elizabeth reflects on “that nervousness of Richard’s which had so attracted her…” (Baldwin, p. 192). Plainly, their relationship is not superficial, nor is Richard’s wrongful arrest and consequent suicide, which leads a lonely, bitter Elizabeth into marriage with Gabriel—a decision that has terrible consequences for Elizabeth’s son, John (a fictionalized James Baldwin, played by James Bond III). Yet, oddly, very little of this makes the cut.
The movie’s ending is, likewise, a head-scratcher, mostly in relation to Florence. In Baldwin’s book, “Florence’s Prayer” at the temple is full of rage and despair; then, as they exit the temple, Florence confronts her brother Gabriel about his adultery with Esther, told her in a letter from Deborah. It’s a protracted (four page long) confrontation that ends with Florence’s furious words: “Deborah was cut down—but she left word. […] When I go, brother, you better tremble, ‘cause I ain’t going to go in silence.” (Baldwin, p. 255). All this is of core importance, but none of it appears in the TV movie version. Rather—despite her rage, Florence yields to religious ecstasy at the temple, never to resurface in any way. Meanwhile, teenage John’s love for the slightly older Elisha, broadly hinted at in the book’s last chapter, goes AWOL in the TV movie.
There is, nevertheless, plenty to admire about the TV movie. Scenes of gospel-singing, praying, and sermonizing, present-day and in flashback, thoroughly show the religiosity of the Grimes family (et al), while the dinginess of their apartment shows their poverty. Various scenes show Gabriel’s unbending sternness towards his stepson, John, who at first assures Elisha (Giancarlo Esposito), “I don’t want to be no preacher.” Similarly, Esther assures Gabriel that their child “won’t be listening to no preachin’.” And—to present a balanced view—there are many scenes throughout the movie between John and Elisha, which establish a close friendship between the two young men that buoys John and ultimately leads John into a new way of life.
The Gabriel of the TV movie promises John to help him on his way, whereas the Gabriel of the book does not smile at John or speak to him. So—while the movie displays harsh realities, it also softens them. Granted, the 1985 TV movie version of Go Tell It on the Mountain does not betray the book, but, if I were James Baldwin, I wouldn’t be very, very happy about it.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.