Josephine Baker’s French Films

American entertainer Josephine Baker was the first multigenerational mixed actress to grace French cinema screens in the 1920s and quickly became a star.  Baker’s life and art reflected her multiplicity.[1]  She started off in vaudeville in New York where she achieved success but faced limitations as a designated black woman. Having left the States to pursue a career in Paris, she became famous as a dancer at the Folies Bergère, often playing the seductive African savage; one famous routine saw her perform in bananas and strip.  Later, as an actress and singer, she was known for walking her cheetah around the city, lived in a château on the Dordogne, and socialised with the European élite.  Her lovers were usually white and she adopted children of all ‘races’.  Although she embraced a French nationality she maintained her links to America and continued to spend time there.  Baker’s films both exoticise her as a colonial servant and naturalise her as a recognisable citizen.  Her sympathetic onscreen portrayals can be located in the sexualisation of and clandestine white desire for the mixed female, but are also rooted in the French idealisation of mixed-race beauty.[2]

The 1937 World’s Fair in Paris was the first to host a mixed-race beauty pageant.  Miss France D’Autre Mer [Miss Overseas France] was a competition for the daughters of white French male colonials and black women.  As Elizabeth Ezra notes, in contrast to earlier exhibitions (e.g. human zoos[3]), this event ‘appeared to stress the assimilationist potential of the colonised’ (2000: 16).  The event championed integration but also illustrated contemporary debates on the potential worth of hybrids, deriving from the new interest in eugenics and racial engineering.[4]  The pageant’s name celebrates the imperial national concept: ‘la plus grande France [Greater France]… [made up of] “100 million Frenchmen” from all corners of the globe’ (Ezra, 2000: 110).  This expansive vision might help explain the contemporaneous fascination with Baker.

Alberto Capatti describes Baker as a floating signifier of difference: ‘She represents black beauty, Yankee freedom, and New Orleans blues; she’s a jungle girl from the wilds of Casino de Paris and, in her own special way, a cordon-bleu chef’ (1989: 206).  The reference to New Orleans roots her in African-American culture but also associates her with the former French colony of Louisiana.  Antebellum New Orleans was a unique space for mixed people in America due to the tradition of plaçage [placing], which legitimised sexual relations between white men and non-white women (treated as common law wives).  As Zack explains, this tradition supported a mixed-race élite, and was of particular benefit to the mixed women’s brothers, who: ‘were either set up in business among the respectable gens du couleur in the city or sent to France, where they could study or reside without stigma due to race’ (1993: 114). 

Ezra (2000) notes that Baker was one of the first stars to market herself as a brand and use her image to sell a variety of cultural products.  As a transnational polyglot, she evoked American modernity, Parisian chic and Afro-Caribbean cultures.  Thus, like the multicultural Diesel, in different films she performed different races, even claiming in a 1935 interview with Pour Vous magazine that her next role would be playing a white woman. 

Baker made three silent films: La Folie du jour [The Day’s Folly] (1926), La Revue des revues [The Review of Reviews] (1927), both featuring footage of her stage shows, and La Sirène des tropiques [The Siren of the Tropics] (1927), a feature film set in the colonies.  She acted and sang in French, Spanish, German and Italian productions until the mid-1960s.  Her most popular talkies were Zouzou (Allegret, France, 1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (Gréville, France, 1935), both written for her and made by the same production unit.

In Zouzou she plays the titular character, a woman who grew up in an adoptive transracial circus family. Her brother Jean (Jean Gabin) and father Papa Melé (Pierre Larquey) are white.  The idea of family is re-imagined through this loving and cohesive unit, albeit within the non-normative space of the circus.  Her name (now rebranded as the more French Joséphine Baker) appears first on the credits, a feat rarely achieved by a mixed/black performer in an otherwise white American film even now (though ironically Zouzou was dismissed by the critics as a Hollywood knockoff).  Following the plot conventions of American hit musicals like 42nd Street (Bacon, 1933), the narrative centres on a hopeful unknown who is given a shot at fame after the star of a major theatre show quits.  It is a traditional ‘rags to riches’ melodramatic narrative but with a twist – a non-white woman becomes the star attraction of a major (all-white) show, and ends the film as a successful artist. 

The film opens with Zouzou and Jean onstage, playing twins as part of a freak show.[5]  They are contextualised, like Alwina in Baker’s next film, as oddities, on the periphery of humanity.  Yet the circus MC insists “where would we be without them?” and calls them “one of nature’s miracles”.  Later, in a rare exposition of a happy mixed family, little Zouzou is shown smiling, playing and being cuddled by Papa Melé.  She is confident and fearless, as seen in her sibling rivalry with Jean.  As an adult, when men grab her she bites them.  Although this results in her being called a “savage” or “cannibal”, Zouzou does not bend to anyone’s will but her own.  This treatment alludes to the contemporaneous racism which is otherwise absent, while also highlighting the savagery of the ‘civilised’ white men who seek to control and seduce/violate Zouzou (which later culminates in a shooting).

The film mocks racist and sexist ideas such as the natural rhythm of blacks and male superiority.  Zouzou’s colour is only mentioned once when she is referred to as Creole; she is defined as being from Martinique even though she is framed as French.[6]  She is presented as an integrated member of French society, with friends, neighbours, family, a job, a love interest and a social life.  Her love interest is however her brother, a plot device which draws on historical associations of miscegenation and incest. Although the loss of her love interest and her father makes her tragic, she is also a successful career woman whose posters adorn the public spaces of Paris.  Here the multiplication of her image reinforces the idea of Zouzou/Baker as a multiply read and multiply identitied individual, isolated and perhaps inassimilable.  Costume and score emphasise her in-between identity.  Although she sings about Haiti in one stage show scene (associating her with the foreign and uncolonisable[7]), in another she is featured in glamorous satins, silks, diamonds and furs commanding the attention of tuxedoed white men and outshining beautiful white women.   

In contrast to gendered ideas, the film narratively presents Jean and Zouzou as equals.  He goes shopping with her and helps her find work, and it is she who provides the money and proof which releases him from jail when he is wrongly accused of murder.  She is one of several women in the film who take control of their own lives yet, while the other women are sexually liberated (often with foreign, non-white men), she is not granted a lover herself.  And while she is integrated – first in the working class female community, then in the theatrical world – she sings and dances for whites, not with them, and so is always positioned as somewhat separate. Her marginality leads to a form of exclusion from intimate relations.

Her name evokes the zouave [native colonial soldier] and as a narrative figure she represents the postcolonial; colonies lost (America, Haiti) but still yoked to France, and those soon to be liberated (Martinique, the African nations).  For contemporary spectators her name also evokes Zinedane Zidane, the French-Maghrebi star football player known as Zizou, whose ‘race’ caused much controversy on the pitch and off.[8]

To quote Bhabha, Zouzou like Zidane, responds to colonial nostalgia for a reformed subject of difference which is: ‘Almost the same but not quite… Almost the same but not white’ (1994: 322).  This idea is reaffirmed in Bhabha’s term ‘resemblance’, meaning an uncertain familiarity and similarity between coloniser and colonised which is ‘terrifying to the West’ (1994: 88-90).  Zouzou diminishes the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in her recognisability and identifiability and yet remains differenced narratively and visually.

In Princesse Tam Tam, Baker plays Alwina, an African shepherdess who undergoes a Pygmalionesque exercise to make her an aristocrat fit for French high society (the racetrack scene – amongst others – serves as a template for My Fair Lady (Cukor, USA, 1964)).  Alwina is discovered by French aristocratic writer Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) in Tunisia, a space depicted by key tropes: the ruins of the Roman empire in Dougga; the rural wilderness; idle children.  He decides to use her as fodder for a new novel and introduce her to Paris as an Indo-Caribbean princess.  This experiment mimics the civilising ethic and sexual power dynamic of colonialism, as signified by the ruins and Max’s desire for her. As a writer, he takes control of her visual, vocal and formal language.  At the same time, his childless wife, who is perennially unfaithful and élitist, has begun dating actual foreign royalty (a Maharajah played by Jean Galland, a white actor in blackface).  By enabling interracial unions for both sexes, the film differs from American movies of the same period.

As Max’s puppet, Alwina plays out Bhabha’s (1994) theory of ‘colonial mimicry’, that is, the postcolonial moment where the formerly colonised start to imitate their former masters.  Yet, unlike Bhabha’s writings on the colonial subject – constructing him as ‘partial’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘virtual’ in a colonialist discourse – Alwina is constructed as a full subject, worthy of spectatorship.  She eventually rejects the language of the coloniser for her own value-systems, language, dress, song and movements.  Once in France, Alwina successfully passes for a princess.  Yet, in a telling scene she rejects high society for common bars where she dances and drinks with black and white men.  As in her last film, here racial discourse collapses into class discourse revealing the film’s political ideology.[9]  Nevertheless, her positioning against a sea of white/artificially blackened faces in the working-class bars of the city highlights the uniqueness of Baker’s position.

Although her name – meaning ‘little source/stream’ – and often childlike behaviour construct her as infantile, the soft primitivism of the film idealises this pastoral innocence as superior to the decadence of Parisian life where values mean little and ‘true’ stories like Max’s book –  ghost-written and based in the false racial discourses of Orientalism – are mere fantasy.  While Princesse Tam Tam stereotypes its servants – Dar (Georges Péclet, a white actor in blackface) is portrayed as a scheming Arab – it does not rely solely on negative caricatures – Dar is also a romantic hero. 

Baker’s French cinematic career stalled in the late 1930s and she went back to being a singer.  Her limited success as an actress can be attributed to the fact that under the WWII Vichy régime there was a concerted effort to rid the French film industry of Jews and foreigners.  Baker was both, having married a French Jew in 1937. Under different circumstances Baker’s influence might have radicalised the industry and yet, despite the challenges she faced, she remains a French icon. 

Ana M. Lopez critiques the historical misrepresentation of non-whites in American cinema:

Thinking of Hollywood as ethnographer, as co-producer in power of cultural texts, allows us to reformulate its relationship to ethnicity. Hollywood does not represent ethnics and minorities: it creates them and provides its audience with an experience of them (1993: 68).

By contrast with Hollywood, Baker’s French films acknowledge and celebrate ethnic minorities while mocking ideologies of white supremacy. For example at the start of Princesse Tam Tam, when Alwina is offended by a group of racist white tourists, she gets her own back by putting sand in their salt cellar. Spectators are encouraged to empathise with her – though this is mediated by Max who is in on the joke.  Like Imitation of Life (Stahl, USA, 1934), the whites in Princesse Tam Tam are presented as greedy, self-serving and manipulative, but unlike Imitation of Life they are not redeemed by love.  And, if we compare the mixed leads, although Peola (played by mixed actress Fredi Washington) is a well-dramatised character, she lacks the screen presence or multifaceted portrayal afforded to Alwina or Zouzou. 

Princesse Tam Tam subjectivises its mixed/black characters – servants are shown enjoying themselves away from work and, in the scene where Dar takes Alwina out on his boat, we see them falling in love (after Max has rejected her advances).  Here the camera frames Alwina without any white agent to mediate between spectator and non-white actor as she relaxes into song, idealised in soft close-ups.  And, unlike most American or French films, the site of métissage is the capital city, the symbolic locus of the nation.

The film ends with images of Alwina, Dar and their baby as the new inhabitants of Max’s expansive Tunisian villa. No longer the playground of the idle colonial rich, the villa now houses a local family and their farm animals.  A donkey is seen eating the cover page of Max’s book Civilisation.  The artificial and exploitative elements of the colonial are contrasted with the acceptance and co-operation of the liberated.  While the scene acts as a critique of the privileging of one civilisation over another, it might also be read as a critique of capitalism and communicates nostalgia for Republican values.

Both films parallel Baker’s own ‘rags to riches’ story; her grandmother was born into slavery, and, following an own impoverished upbringing, Baker became a star.  In each narrative, people try to control her and she is visually encaged in/by: a birdcage, a spotlight, a poster, a sculpture, a portrait, a caricature.  But she refuses to let her agency be suppressed and ultimately enacts her will, thus acting as the central identificatory point for the spectator. 

Baker’s part in French film history evidences the potential for mixed subjectivities in what Danielle Haase-Dubosc calls ‘this third place which is France [where] questions of multiple identity seem to be lived out in positive ways’ (1993 cited in Braidotti, 1994: 12). Yet, Baker’s success was not matched by other mixed/black actors of her time. Isolated mixed/black figures were used in the nouvelle vague as symbols of outsider culture – e.g. see Chronique d’un été (Morin & Rouch, 1961) or 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle (Godard, 1967) – but would not be centralised again in French cinema until the success of the 1980s beur cinema movement.

[1] Baker grew up in Kansas and lived in France from the age of 19 on. She continued to campaign for civil rights in America and only performed at integrated venues.  She worked for the Resistance during WWII, receiving various awards for her service. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. She adopted twelve children from all over the world, exemplifying the potential of racial harmony.  For more information on Josephine Baker’s position in French culture see Elizabeth Ezra’s The Colonial Unconscious. Race and Culture in Interwar France (New York: Cornell University Press, 2000).

[2] The French anthropologist Paul Broca (1864) endorsed procreation between black women and white men as he claimed their offspring would inherit more of the father’s racial superiority, thus elevating the perceived inferior races. 

[3] Usually consisting of ‘primitives’ put on display in huts at public exhibitions, e.g. the ‘cannibal village’ (cited in Ezra, 2000: 13) at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale [International Colonial Exhibition] held in Paris. This phenomena is referenced in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher, USA, 2008).  One of Benjamin’s friends in the 1920s-30s is described as an African pygmie who was kept in a cage with gorillas in Philadelphia zoo. This may be based on the true story of Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmie who was exhibited with the apes in the Monkey House at the Bronx zoo for two weeks in 1906.

[4] For more on colonial perceptions of mixed women and their sexuality, see Ann Laura Stoler’s Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

[5] In 1899, African-American and albino brothers, George and Willie Muse, were kidnapped to be exhibited as a freakshow in the circus. Their mother spent 28 years looking for them. Known as ‘Eko and Iko’, they were unpaid and promoted as ‘sheep-headed freaks’, ‘ambassadors from Mars’ and ‘white Ecuadorian cannibals’. The Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. See Beth Macy’s 2016 book Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company).

[6] The French overseas departments and territories (Overseas France) are known as the DOM-TOMs (Départements et Territoires d’Outre-Mer). These territories – including Martinique – became classed as départments in 1946 and remain part of France (with representation in the French parliament).

[7] Haiti was officially liberated from colonial rule in 1804.

[8] A French sporting hero, Zidane is the son of Kabyle parents who grew up in a housing project in northern Marseilles.

[9] The film reflects France’s brief Socialist shift in the 1930s which led to the election of The Popular Front political party.

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