Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Native and Narration: Josephine Baker and the Cinema of Métissage
Katherine Groo

Last modified: 2010-05-28


The performances and persona of Josephine Baker have received extensive critical attention in studies of the transatlantic migration of African Americans to Europe, as well as analyses of colonial representation.  The most careful scholarship, like that of Terri Francis, Janet Lyon, and Carole Sweeney, reads the phenomenon of Baker’s success against the milieu of the second French colonial empire.  Her music hall performances invited audiences to indulge the many colonial fantasies projected upon the black female body in turn-of-the-century Paris while, as spectators of an African American performing stereotypes of African identity, safely reaffirming their difference from Baker and avoiding any encounter with the contemporary political realities of colonized Africa.  Though celebrated in Europe, Baker performed a very specific function in the music hall and the boundaries of these performances were rigorously policed.

But Baker was more than a music hall performer.  Over the course of her decades-long career, she appeared in four feature-length films.  These works have been largely ignored or considered only as footnotes to La Revue nègre (1927).  This omission is remarkable for, as I argue, the ideological predeterminations and spectacular paradoxes at the origin of Baker’s music hall performances collapse in their translation to cinema. Rather than the “controlled frenzy” of the music hall, Baker’s films serve as one of the few spaces in which the visual frenzy overwhelms the image, obstructing any effort to capture or contain its subject.  Through a close reading of Baker’s first film,  La Sirène des Tropiques (1927), I examine the conditions that make this collapse possible.

La Sirène des Tropiques stars Josephine Baker as Papitou, a Caribbean native who finds fame and romance in Paris.  The film weaves documentary footage of exotic locales and “real” native subjects together with a narrative of romance and thrilling adventure in far-flung corners of the world.  La Sirène des tropiques wanders, often aimlessly and indiscriminately, between here and elsewhere, non-fiction and fiction, the natural landscape and extravagant fictionalized interiors.  Loose ends, complicated remainders, and visual detours abound.  Moreover, both of these films feature mixed-race women as central protagonists, romantically entangled with white leading men. Rather than mere reflections of colonial ideology and spectatorial desire, I read these figures as subversive precursors to Gilles Deleuze’s post-war image-temps and argue that both Baker and Duflos belong to a little-explored category of French screen stardom: the ethnographic star.  La Révue nègre and La Sirène des Tropiques  guide viewers through unpredictable shifts in space and time, and frequently serve as the axes around which visual instabilities gather. The two films include an unusual battery of formal and narrative devices that attempt to make visible the desirable Josephine Baker, activating and enlarging her music hall stardom, while simultaneously offering the familiar paradoxes of colonial discourse and satisfying the commercial demand for romance. 


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