Josephine Baker: The Unsung Heroine of Black Cinema

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Last week we paid a visit to BFI Southbank to watch a screening of Josephine Baker's 1936 film Zouzou as part of the Black Star season celebrating black cinema over the past century, running until the end of the year. What we expected was a pleasant 90 minutes of black and white viewing with a few musical numbers and Baker's iconic comic skits. What we got was more than we could have bargained for, namely a retired Anglican priest giving us a blessing mid way through our post-cinema Dumpling binge. We kid you not; the plight of black women in cinema makes for hungry/religious work.

Nevertheless, with a blessing under our belts and an evening of beautiful French cinema to reflect on, we thought we'd do a bit of digging into the life of the extraordinary Josephine Baker, star of the feature. From participating in the March on Washington, raising her Rainbow Tribe and catapulting the profile of actors and actresses of colour in cinema, the 'Black Venus' was a force to be reckoned with. The admiration of Pablo Picasso and Princess Grace of Monaco, we delve into the life of Josephine Baker, the unsung heroine of Black Cinema.

Keep up with future screenings throughout BFI Black Star Season on their website.

Words by Danielle Morgan

An American in Paris, driven out of her home by poverty and driven out of her country by racism. Josephine Baker was born in St Louis in 1906, and was married by the age of 13.

Throughout her life, Josephine Baker worked hard to shake the stigma of her colour but not her heritage, putting the success her talents had afforded her to good use. During WWII, she worked with the Free French Forces performing for the troops, as well as working with the French Resistance, smuggling secret messages in her sheet music and often her underwear. During the 1950s and '60s, she would frequently return to the States to participate in marches and rallies campaigning for civil rights.

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Her starring roles on stage and screen during the 1920s and '30s did much to de-stigmatise black actors and actresses during the period. She was soon to become one of the highest paid actresses in Europe of her day, but after returning to America for a brief stint in early 1930 to a hostile and racist reception, she fled back to France to live out her days with a string of husbands, lovers and adopted children.

She called them the 'Rainbow Tribe'. In total, Josephine adopted 12 children of all colours and ethnicities, often inviting people to and organising tours around her French Chateau where they all lived to demonstrate how easy it was for different races to live harmoniously with one another. Her growing family seemed to be a personal plight for the eradication of racism towards black and ethnic minorities, little of which she had experienced in her beloved France but of which she was perpetually faced with when returning to her homeland.

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In 1925, Josephine took to the stage at the Folies Bergere in only a skirt made of 16 bananas. A daring performance, audiences loved her comic skits and exotic dancing, with everyone from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemmingway flocking to see the 'Black Venus'. Just 10 years later, after having moved to France to perform in stage choruses and finally on the silver screen, Josephine returned to America to see if she could emulate her European success. After a warm and welcoming reception in France, her natives were all but hospitable. She was met with an icy reception, and experienced cruel racism that she had not experienced since her youth, and had never encountered in her beloved Paris.

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For the 50th anniversary of her stage debut, in 1975 Josephine took to the stage of the Bobino Theatre in Paris and performed to rave reviews and standing ovations from crowds of a-list and royalty alike, from Princess Grace of Monaco to Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger. No longer was the colour of her skin the talk of tinseltown and after years of living under the gloomy cloud of debt and segregation, her bad luck had finally run out.

By the 1930s, black cinema was a thriving industry, in Europe at least. Segregation on the silver screen was rarely exercised, especially in French cinema, and perhaps no film encapsulates this sentiment as honestly as Zouzou (1936). Whilst some have argued that the film poses some ethnic and social limitations for its black female lead; she falls in love with Jean, her adopted white brother but he instead casts her aside and falls for her best friend Claire, who is also white. It is important to remember however that during this period, many French films were independently produced and Zouzou was no exception. Arys Nissotti directed the film, whilst Josephine Baker herself and husband Pepito Abatino poured their own money into the production. With this in mind, it is unlikely that the American inspired storyline carries these prejudiced undertones. Josephine's direct involvement in the film goes a long way to quash this idea.

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In Zouzou at least, the black woman is strong, empowering and autonomous. Her talent and sexuality are not discriminated against because of her colour, she is more celebrated because of these attributes. This too was the case in Josephine's real life. Many admired Josephine for her exoticism, as women flocked to department stores to buy tinted powders and moisturisers that they would apply to their skin in an attempt to darken its tone so they could better emulate that of their favourite actress.

The first American to be buried with French honours, Josephine Baker was a testament to the power of black women on and off screen.

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