As one of the brightest stars of the 20th century, Josephine Baker wasn’t just a mesmerizing actor or a sublime dancer who could make beautifully goofy faces — she was, and still is, an iconic cultural figure whose powerful presence incurs questions of colonialism, Black womanhood, authorship, and much, much more. In her new book Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (IU Press, 2021), IU Associate Professor and Director of the Black Film Center/Archive Dr. Terri Francis delves into Baker’s career and masterfully illustrates how, among other things, “her achievement as the first global Black woman film star stands as a monument to her capacity to shine regardless of whether the spotlight found her and the unique space that she occupied between race films, colonial cinema, and Hollywood, perfectly designed for her particular magnificence.” In the following interview, I spoke with Terri about her process in writing the book, Baker’s unparalleled genius, and the significance of reclaiming her as a film pioneer.
When did you first become aware of Baker? And what ultimately encouraged you to choose her as your subject?
I honestly can’t recall a time when I was not aware of Josephine Baker but I can say that Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “The Venus Hottentot” was very influential in my thinking.
“The Venus Hottentot” here refers to Saartjie Baartman, a young 19th-century South African woman who ventured to Europe and was exhibited as a freak show attraction. In Alexander’s poem, Baartman, speaking after her death in 1815 (the poem is set in 1825), says what she thinks about Cuvier, the scientist who has dissected, or is in the process of dissecting, her body as she describes her reveries of “imaginary daughters, in banana skirts/and ostrich feather fans.” That’s Baker! A hundred years after Baartman. This connection intrigued me and the work Alexander does in that poem to obliquely reference Baker through reanimating Baartman, blurring past and present, authorizing Baartman, captivated me.
For my dissertation, initially I thought it would be about Primitivism and how Baker and others like Paul Robeson, Katherine Dunham, and Zora Neale Hurston figured into that. But my committee advised me to focus on just Baker and that was the right call. That shift took me on an adventure.
Baker is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever read about. Was there any point where you were tempted to do a straight biography of her, or were you always more interested in academically exploring her stage and film work?
I agree, she is faaaaaaaaaascinating! But there are already several rich biographies of Baker.
My book is about Baker’s contributions as a film pioneer centered on her thoughts and decisions around being in movies.
You point out that when we think of Baker, we often recognize her as a cultural icon without realizing that she was also a film pioneer. How important was it to you to reassert this aspect of Baker’s career, especially if we take into consideration the ignorance and erasure of Black artists from film history?
Baker’s gestures and facial expressions make terrific GIFs and what’s so great about those is how the infinite repetition of a second, a moment, illustrates that any single gesture of Baker’s is complete cinema in itself. And you want to see more and more. They capture something magnificent that might be fleeting otherwise.
What I am demonstrating in my book, though, is that the films Baker starred in were made in a certain place and time, and they were received in a certain place and time. And that Black people watched and thought about Baker’s work.
My concept of the cinematic prism emphasizes how Baker, as a creative performer, portrays a screen character based on stage characters she had previously played. Her celebrity is an ongoing creation. And I authorize Baker as a creator, thinker, maker, and as a reader and a spectator of her own work using her own words and her own performances.
In terms of film history, my central question was whether Baker’s films circulated in the United States among the Black independent films of the 1920s and 1930s, and how were they received?
Baker was a Black American woman with top billing in multiple French productions. She was a huge entertainer. She’s got to be in the Black film story!
Early in your book, you mention that creating a series of video essays from Baker’s films at a workshop “rekindled [your] faith” in her. Had you hit a wall in your research or was it just difficult to find something new to say?
No, not at all. The manuscript was complete. Maybe I could have put that another way — not sure I ever lost faith in her!
I was probably too embarrassed to say love. But that’s even worse!
Creating the video essays came long after the book was finished. The video essays brought me into proximity, a new intimacy with Baker’s voice and her thinking, as an older woman, about her banana days and I did incorporate some of that material into the final version.
One of the things I love about the book is your mission to restore Baker’s agency and to insist that she had authorship over herself and her performances. Would you say that was your primary goal in writing this? Was that objective there from the beginning, or was it something that emerged the more you wrote?
I guess I wonder why it is that this mission should even exist. I mean, I know why! But the reality is Baker was a genius. She’s going to stir things up and be complicated.
Look at her effects, what she ignites, what she makes possible.
Agency is the least of it!
In the prologue – which I thought was beautiful, by the way – it sounds like writing this book and engaging with Baker was in some ways a transformative experience. There is also this wonderful line you include about how you hope your writing feels like “a duet, a collaboration between Baker and [you].” Throughout the book, I could sense your admiration for her and the care you wanted to take in reframing her. Does it feel strange to finally have your work out in the world? Do you think you’ll miss writing about Baker, or do you see your work as ongoing?
Thank you. I remember writing that. I wrote the prologue long after the book was finished and it was time to let it go so that the manuscript could move on to the copyedit stage. I was probably feeling very emotional.
I enjoy opportunities like this to talk about my book and to continue reflecting on Josephine Baker. It doesn’t feel strange at all.
I do admire her. Baker took risks and I admire that. She portrayed film characters who, within the limits of the narrative, took risks. In all her scenes, she’s luminous, a true star. I’m happy to have written about Baker for my first book.
Join IU Cinema and the Black Film Center/Archive for the upcoming series Starring Josephine Baker, which kicks off June 1 with a virtual introduction and screening of Princess Tam Tam. Then, on June 3, celebrate Baker’s birthday with a conversation between Terri Francis and author Hanif Abdurraqib (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, Random House). If you register for either the June 1 or June 3 event, you’ll also receive access to a free virtual cinema offering of Zou Zou.
You can order Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism through IU Press.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.