James Baldwin debates William F Buckley

59 minutes

Acadiana

10 minutes

Dani

8 minutes

The physarum experiments

5 minutes

Kierkegaard’s horror of doubt

7 minutes

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

The uncanny allure of the annual Cajun crawfish festival in Louisiana

Crawfish – small crustaceans also known as crayfish, crawdads or mudbugs – have long been a staple of Cajun cuisine, with the lobster-like creatures plentiful in the freshwaters of Louisiana. With an observational style and an experimental flair, Acadiana gathers scenes from a day at the state’s annual crawfish festival in Breaux Bridge. A crawfish eating competition, crawfish-inspired costumes and a float procession featuring the 2019 crowned Crawfish King and Queen are captured with a mix of anthropological curiosity and familial respect by the Québécois filmmakers Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau and Yannick Nolin. While its title references the French-Canadian roots of Cajun culture in the United States, there is something otherworldly about this short film, which went on to win several awards on the Canadian film-festival circuit.

Directors: Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau, Yannick Nolin

Producer: Jean-Pierre Vézina

Website: Kinomada

‘I hate giving you bad news’: when a daughter with breast cancer calls her mother

Danielle Hernandez is 30 and has Stage 4 breast cancer. As she calls her mother Violeta in Florida to deliver an update on her treatment from her home in Los Angeles, she oscillates between medical jargon and silver livings, with the more difficult pieces of information hidden in the subtext, only occasionally bubbling to the surface. This intimate conversation is captured by her roommate, the US filmmaker Lizzy Hogenson, in the short film Dani. Using a stop-motion technique that combines felt figures and claymation, Hogenson places her own veneer on the discussion, which is pierced by intermittent cracks of raw emotion, hard truths and silence. The result is at once affecting and distressing, as small moments of love, courage and pain spark and fade into uncertainty.

Director: Lizzy Hogenson

Producer: Kyle McClary

Creeping through mazes, repelling adversaries – the slow-motion smarts of slime moulds

To the naked eye, the organism Physarum polycephalum – commonly referred to as ‘slime mould’ – might seem an unexceptional creature, despite its bright-yellow glow, as its acellular existence is dedicated to tracking nutrients at a speed of 1mm per hour. But this protist’s surprising computational cunning becomes apparent when viewed in time-lapse, revealing a life form that seems to possess intelligence despite lacking a nervous system. Between 2009 and 2018, the UK artist and researcher Heather Barnett conducted a series of clever experiments in which she probed slime moulds’ capacities for forming complex tube networks and adjusting to obstacles. For this short film, Aeon Video compiled Barnett’s ‘creative collaborations’ with P polycephalum into a montage that builds in complexity, emphasising the slime moulds’ surprisingly sophisticated capacities for problem-solving.

Director: Heather Barnett

Sound designer: Graham Barton

Editor: Tamur Qutab

Want to think for yourself? Start with an agonising state of doubt, says Kierkegaard

Influenced by Socrates’ sense of irony, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) came to believe that a state of doubt – disorienting and horrifying as it could sometimes be – was the cornerstone of a sound philosophical practice. This scepticism of objective truth and ardent belief in thinking for oneself is omnipresent in his pseudonymous works, in which his assumed names sometimes even spar with one another. While amusing, the peculiar literary device also undercuts any sense that the works were written by a voice of authority. In this video from the London Review of Books, the British philosopher and historian Jonathan Rée traces the theme of doubt in Kierkegaard’s life and work using his unfinished, posthumously published novel Johannes Climacus: Or a Life of Doubt as a starting point.

Video by the London Review of Books

Producer: Anthony Wilks

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

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Study For Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks (1791-92) by Samuel Jennings. Courtesy the Met Museum/New York

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