Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2007

Josephine Baker

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

Notwithstanding the seemingly inexorable tendency for New York to become a theme park for hedge fund managers based on health clubs and million dollar condos, there are still some things that make living here worthwhile. One of them is the accessibility to high quality films that never make it to the hinterlands, especially those shown at specialty film festivals like the African Diaspora Film Festival that is running between November 23rd and December 6th this year.

I had the opportunity to see a documentary on Josephine Baker that will be shown on Friday, November 30th. Directed by Annette Von Wangenheim, it is a fascinating look at a personality I had only knew by reputation before. Aptly titled “Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World,” it is a study of the very first Black female to become a major figure in the entertainment world. What I didn’t realize, however, is that Baker had much in common with figures such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, who used their fame and prestige to promote a progressive agenda.

Born in 1906, Baker was a highly successful chorus line performer by the early 1920s. In 1925, she made a debut appearance in the Théatre des Champs-Élysées and eventually became a regular at the Folies Bergères. Vintage films from the period show Baker dancing in erotic costumes with racist overtones, such as a string of bananas that one interviewee regarded as a phallic symbol as well. That was basically the mold that Baker was cast into in this period, one combining powerful racial and sexual motifs, such as this performance of “Haiti” captured on youtube would indicate. As repellent as the African savage imagery of her dances now appears, it must be remembered that this was an almost inevitable aspect of a Black popular culture forced to adapt to white tastes. Duke Ellington also performed “jungle” music and Louis Armstrong sang about “darkies” in Mississippi.

Josephine Baker became a French citizen in 1937 and a universally beloved figure, including some of the leading “high culture” figures as her fans, like Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway. Her prestige was so overwhelming that the Nazis were reluctant to move against her despite her belonging to an “inferior” racial group. Using her ability to travel freely abroad and her knowledge of multiple languages, Baker became a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. She smuggled intelligence to the resistance in Portugal coded within her sheet music. After the war, she received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur from General Charles de Gaulle.

An outspoken defender of world peace and racial justice, Baker transformed her beliefs into deeds by adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds and countries after WWII. One, who speaks reverently about her in the film, was living in an Algerian refugee camp during the war of independence.

Josephine Baker became a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. She also continued performing until the night she died in 1975. An interview from that year sums up her career and contribution to humanity: “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.”

1 Comment »

  1. wonderful information!

    Comment by Graeme — November 21, 2007 @ 6:00 am

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