Billy Porter to star as Black queer icon James Baldwin

Billy Porter, James Baldwin
Billy Porter (L) and James Baldwin (R) Photo: YouTube screenshots

Out actor Billy Porter is co-writing a movie about celebrated gay author and civil rights activist James Baldwin in which Porter will play Baldwin.

The currently untitled project will be co-written with screenwriter Dan McCabe and adapted from the 1994 book James Baldwin: A Biography written by David Leeming. Leeming, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Connecticut, was Baldwin’s personal assistant and friend of 25 years, Variety reports.

“As a Black queer man on this planet with relative consciousness I find myself, like James Baldwin said, ‘in a rage all the time.’ I am because James was,” Porter said. “I stand on James Baldwin’s shoulders, and I intend to expand his legacy for generations to come.”

Baldwin, the oldest of nine siblings, grew up amidst poverty in Harlem with an abusive pastor stepfather. He excelled in school and temporarily became a preacher before meeting other New York artists and actors. Starting in 1947, he spent nearly a decade abroad in France to avoid U.S. racism, and there, he published his first books: the semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), his essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), and the gay romantic tragedy Giovanni’s Room (1956).

After returning to the U.S., Baldwin went on to write essays, novels, plays, and poems, including works that featured gay and bisexual Black men and essays analyzing anti-Black racism in America. The FBI collected an extensive file on Baldwin’s work with anti-racist activist organizations, even as these organizations shunned Baldwin and fellow gay Black activist Bayard Rustin for their homosexuality, which was illegal at the time.

Baldwin advocated for a socialist society and believed that racism dehumanizes both racists and the Black targets they have in their minds. Racists, he also wrote, envision a freedom that involves oppressing others.

In a 1969 Dick Cavett interview, Baldwin famously said, “If any white man in the world says ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing – word for word – he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad (n-word) so there won’t be any more like him.”

Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted by director Barry Jenkins into a 2018 dramatic film that won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Regina King. Baldwin’s legacy was chronicled in the 2016 documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (based on Baldwin’s novel of the same name).

Baldwin will also be portrayed by actor Chris Chalk in an upcoming season of gay TV creator Ryan Murphy’s dramatic series Feud.

Porter won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Lola, a drag queen, in Kinky Boots. He won a 2019 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for playing the HIV-positive emcee Pray Tell in Murphy’s trans-inclusive voguing drama series Pose.

When accepting the Emmy, Porter cited a quote from Baldwin’s 1970 essay “They Can’t Turn Back, stating, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as if I had a right to be here.”

Porter came out as HIV-positive in May 2021 and is known as a fashion icon, wearing gender-bending and highly-stylized outfits on gala red carpets. In 2022, he won a Tony for Best Musical as a producer for the queer Black musical A Strange Loop. His directorial debut, a coming-of-age romantic comedy, Anything’s Possible, premiered in 2022.

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