Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism
Terri Simone Francis
Indiana University Press, 2021
Josephine Baker was an anomaly in the early days of black representation in cinema. She never played a maid or a cook and she was always the star of her films. As the energetic star of films including Zouzou (1934), Siren of the Tropics (1927), and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), she offered a new perspective on Black actresses on the screen. That said, the way she was presented to her public had its complications. In a new book, Terri Simone Francis explores the legendary performer’s image and accomplishments on the screen.
Before I picked up this book, I’d never watched a Josephine Baker film. I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed clips of her singing and dancing, I’ve read two biographies about her, I’ve even read a whole book about her Rainbow Tribe of adoptees from around the world. The only conclusion I can come to is that I assumed that a woman who walked down the streets of Paris with a Cheetah on a leash, had men fighting duals over her, and lived in glamour and chaos for decades could never be half as amusing in a film as she was in real life.
I’m glad this book inspired me to fill in that hole in my cinematic education. I’m also happy to have been wrong, because while Baker didn’t think much of her films, she had presence and the camera loved her. This academic, but accessible deep dive into her film career and the impact of her image in the movies is thorough in considering what influenced her, how she reflected the current culture, and how she continues to be an influence today.
Francis explores how Baker’s performance style was inspired by African dance and blues singers like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Clara Smith (with whom she performed in the US). She put her own comic lens on these varied influences and presented her take with a boldness that would later show in the style of top stars like Diana Ross and Beyoncé. That vibrancy would translate well to the screen, where her mere presence was invigorating, in addition to her energetic, unique dance style and solid comic chops.
Baker’s films were intricate in the way they approached her role in society. While she was the glamorous and charismatic focus of attention, there was always a flavor of exoticism in the way she was portrayed. French colonialism also had a steady pull, keeping her centered, but not quite free. Wealthy white men might have found her alluring, but she was never the romantic focus. Francis thoughtfully details that uneasy balance of stardom and restriction that affected her film work, placing Baker in the complicated history of minstrelsy, Hottentot Venus, and other modes of Black performance and spectacle.
This is an impressively thorough examination of a relatively short period of Baker’s career that nevertheless had a significant impact on her image and legacy.
Many thanks to Indiana University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.