Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism

Indiana Univ. Jan. 2021. 216p. ISBN 9780253223388. pap. $24. FILM
Josephine Baker (1906–75) has long been heralded as a pioneering stage performer, a civil rights activist, and even an agent for the French Resistance during World War II, but Francis (director, Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana State Univ.) instead explores the way her persona was shaped through her film performances. Baker was one of the first Black women to star in a feature film, and her movies were extremely popular in Europe and America, though her characters were often constrained by colonialist stereotypes. Francis brilliantly draws parallels between reception of Baker and of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, who toured Europe in the early 19th century as a part of degrading racist freak shows. White Europeans continued to objectify and sexualize Black performers into Baker’s lifetime, though she was very much in control of her life and career and used her glamour and physical comedy to carve out a place for herself in film and society. Francis has devoted herself to capturing Baker’s powerful spirit, but despite nuanced analysis (and occasional overanalysis) of Baker’s place in Black cultural history, the writing is often academic and unengaging.
VERDICT This intriguing study of Baker’s cinematic work is likely to appeal to scholars of film and Black history but will be of little interest to general readers.
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