266: Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism

Archival Spaces 266

Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism

Uploaded 2 April 2021

Earlier this week, I participated in an online book launch at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (https://www.ithaca.edu/finger-lakes-environmental-film-festival) for Terri Simone Francis’s book, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Indiana University Press, 2021). I was invited to be on the panel because as a young curator at George Eastman Museum in the late 1980s, I had helped preserve and make available to the African-American community several rare Josephine Baker films that seemingly only existed in unique copies in our archive. I noted that I had first encountered “La Bakaire” as a teenager in the 1960s in Germany where she appeared regularly on the type of Saturday night variety shows I detested.  After the Archive preserved Zou Zou (1934, Marc Allégret) and Princess Tam Tam (1935, Edmund T. Gréville), as well as some of the Folies Bergère footage, I presented Josephine Baker programs in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Durham, NC; at Film Forum in October 1987 the crowds were so great that traffic came to a standstill in downtown Manhattan. Afterward, Jean-Claude Baker invited Bruce Goldstein, the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, my wife and myself for dinner at his 42nd Street after-theatre brasserie, Chez Josephine, a little more than a year after it had opened. Jean-Claude, who was at the time writing his own biography of his adopted mother (published 1993), became an acquaintance, who we would see on subsequent visits to New York.

Unlike several biographies about Baker, Terri Francis’s book analyses for the first time Baker’s film career, rather than her life, mixing close textual analysis with historical contextualization. Baker was in fact unique in that she had starring roles in several French films, at a time when her career possibilities in Hollywood films would have been limited to playing stereotyped, walk-on roles as a domestic or mammy. Instead, Josephine Baker moved to Paris in 1925, where she became a huge star at the Folies Bergère, sustaining a career there as a dancer and singer for fifty years. That fame was based on her infamous semi-nude banana dance, so that her public image vacillated between the demeaning stereotypes of black minstrelsy, the sexual allure of an ebony goddess, and liberated independent womanhood. To explicate the many different sides of Baker, Terri Francis employs the metaphor of the prism, which, with the changing light, offers ever different views.

Francis begins with a lengthy discussion of Baker’s banana skirt routine, explicating it as a potent symbol for primitivist and colonialist ideologies signifying persons of color, connecting her to nature, but also to underdeveloped cultures in relationship to supposedly superior white, modern European civilizations. Francis argues that the banana dance is not just a performance, as captured on film, but also performative, in the sense that Baker is simultaneously and self-reflexively satirizing her position as an object for white man’s desire. Indeed, her cabaret performances continued to negotiate these ambiguities and contradictions.

Siren of the Tropics (1927)

In the following chapters, Terri Francis presents close textual analyses of her three main features, The Siren of the Tropics (1927, Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas), a silent, Zou Zou, and Princess Tam Tam, in which Baker speaks fluent if vernacular FrenchAll three films offer a version of Baker’s own rags to riches biography, in which an untrained woman of color morphs into a European musical star. In her chapter on Zou Zou, Francis discusses the 18th century case of Alice Baartman, an African woman who was “exhibited” to British and French audiences, noting that Baker, like Baartman, was perceived as an exotic object, available to curious audiences for visual inspection. Significantly, while she is undoubtedly the star of these films, she is ultimately not the “love interest” for the white male hero. Indeed, Baker as Papitou, Zou Zou and Alwina, fantasizes about the European male object of her desire, but love remains unrequited, while the white male loves only whiteness. Francis demonstrates this mise en scene of gazes precisely by pointing to Jean Gabin in Zou Zou constantly looking away from Baker as she speaks to him towards her girlfriend, whom he desires. Thus, while her stage shows fore-grounded Baker as an object for white colonialist fantasy, her films visualize her subjectivity as a sexual woman of color, while keeping her within an ideological frame of European negrophilia. Politely kept in her place as other, Baker is left to continue her entertainment career or return to her roots, as she does in Princess Tam Tam. Clearly, while the French film industry was willing to have the dark-skinned Baker star in mainstream feature films, an impossibility in Hollywood, it, too, was worried about the specter of miscegenation, which remained a threat to white control of the colonialist imaginary.

Baker’s place in black film history, if mentioned at all, is usually that of a European outlier, divorced from the hard realities of white supremacist America, the race films produced at its periphery, or today’s more mainstream black films. Yet Francis, by focusing on the African-American press reception of Baker and her films, connects Baker directly to black film history, valorizing her as a hope for black cinema in America, but also demonstrating that she was consistently integrated into African-American social consciousness. In other words, Francis theorizes a bifurcated African-American cinema,. split between America and the African-American diaspora, where seminal figures like Paul Robeson and Melvin van Peebles worked.   

Princess Tam Tam (1935)

Finally, a note that in no way diminishes Terri Francis’s critical achievement: it is curious that Francis avoids any discussion of Baker’s well-known queerness, although such a discussion could have been easily integrated into her prism analysis as just another facet, and may even be supported in the text, e.g. in Zou Zou’s relationship to Claire, and, more obtusely in the white-white-black relationship triangles in the other films. Francis’s Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, by melding textual analysis with historical contextualization, even showing how Baker remains an icon for contemporary entertainers, like Beyoncé, makes a seminal contribution to African-American film history.   

Still from Zou Zou (1935)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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