“Some people cannot believe that a magician can fool them in such a way that they can’t figure it out. But magicians can and magicians do. Don’t be too sure of yourself. No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”James Randi, An Honest Liar (2014)
Almost two weeks ago, this infamous year claimed another victim. James Randi, the beloved magician and skeptic, recently died. On learning of his death, I decided to revisit the biographical documentary that chronicles his life’s work, An Honest Liar. After viewing it, I can’t help but call attention to an inescapable truth: we need the lessons James Randi taught us now more than ever before.
An Honest Liar offers its viewers a captivating portrait of Randi’s life. The film chronicles both his professional achievements and his personal challenges, effectively blending them together in a seamless fashion. We learn of his efforts to challenge con artists, faith healers, and others who deceive and exploit people for personal gain. Throughout the documentary, Randi’s charisma and sense of humor shine brightly, giving viewers a good sense of what made him so special. He became a recurring guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was featured or interviewed on a number of other television programs. Footage from some of those appearances are spread throughout the film, thus breathing life into his narrative.
A documentary about a magician might be compelling on its own, but it’s the underlying motivation of Randi’s work that is worthy of admiration. Throughout the film, we learn that Randi adheres to one overarching principle as a magician: his aim is to use deception to entertain audiences, not to fleece them. In advocating for restraint in the use of deception as a magician, he modeled an ethical approach to entertainment that we all would do well to emulate.
Interwoven into the narrative is the story of Randi’s relationship with his husband, Deyvi Peña. The film unveils details about their relationship slowly, eventually revealing the process by which Randi decided to come out as gay in a manner that highlights this important aspect of his identity without sensationalizing it. Similarly, we learn about the challenges Peña faced on the basis of his sexual orientation and how they affected the trajectory of his life in the United States. Without revealing too much, all that needs to be said is that these challenges profoundly affect both Randi and Peña in ways that would give any empathetic viewer pause.
The above quote, which bookends the film, serves as a useful summation of Randi’s lifelong mission: to educate the public. During his life, Randi founded an eponymous non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and skepticism. For years, he offered a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled conditions, a prize which no one successfully claimed. Content produced by his organization, including talks held at an annual conference hosted by his foundation, The Amaz!ng Meeting, is still available for viewing online.
Given how intensely truth itself is being debated in today’s political climate, An Honest Liar is the biographical parable we need right now. It is required viewing for anyone with an interest in critical thinking, skepticism, and magic. It is streaming now for free on Plex and Tubi.