Josephine Baker, The Siren of the Tropics (France 1927)

French Theatrical Poster from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. also visible at http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackheritage/2156229568

  Last week, we watched in class the first half of a silent film called "La Sirene de Tropique" starring Josephine Baker (1927). We will finish watching it this Tuesday. It is possible to watch it free online at : http://www.ovguide.com/movies_tv/la_sirene_des_tropiques.htm

For those of you having trouble following the action or anything else about the film, since it was a "silent" film please see this description provided by IMDb (The Internet Movie Database).  

Although it would appear that the first part of the film was made in the "French Antilles" or the West Indies, in fact it seems as though it might have been entirely filmed in Paris on a sound stage. The West Indian cast looked genuine enough though. I am attaching here as well a quite wonderful paper I found on line concerning Baker's role in juxtaposition with the male star Pierre Batcheff who was apparently quite well known as an actor.  I send you these materials as support for the fact that silent film was indeed quite important worldwide up through 1927, also the time of the Harlem Renaissance.  It will be difficult for you to grasp anything about the issues for the participants of the Harlem Renaissance if you are unable to recognize any of the significant constituent elements of their world, i.e. this important silent film starring Josephine Baker which apparently premiered at the Lafayettle Theatre in Harlem in 1929 to much fanfare.  

As some of you may know, Josephine Baker was an important black female performer (actress, singer, dancer) born in East St. Louis who moved to New York and travelled to Paris in "La Revue Negre" in the early 1920s.  Baker remained in France for the rest of her life and became a major star there, making a number of films, and widely considered in Europe one of the most beautiful and talented women of her time.  Her career as an international star of stage and film would have been impossible to launch in the U.S. because of racial and sexual prohibitions that were strictly enforced in the U.S. film industry and in the theatre, which was largely racially segregated as well.  

(Segregated doesn't mean that black stars didn't exist.  They did.  Indeed, sometimes it seems as though segregation actually allowed more participation than integration ever has. The first result of integration in the 1960s was that black stars and black institutions faded.  Neither Harlem nor any other black community has subsequently re-established its ascendancy since integration.)

For the most part, black women who were cast on stage and in film in the United States during the 20s and the 30s were restricted to narrowly defined and smaller roles (I have written about and screened every single occasion which while important to black audiences was never commensurate with the lavish attention that white female stars were receiving). They were rarely if ever featured in leading roles in American films (although there was a somewhat prolific but entirely separate race film industry which I have studied as well).  

So far as the stage, black women were largely restricted to black cast shows, often musicals. Nonetheless the freedom of black performers in live performances in clubs and on stage was always greater than on film, and as the concentration of the film industry in Hollywood was more extensively institutionalized, black participation on screen was ever more diminished.  Whereas, during much of the silent period the film industry was much more decentralized with major pockets of production in a variety of locations throughout the United States, Hollywood almost immediately became the capital of color and sound film and took on right away many of the characteristics of the Southern United States in that it was extremely racially segregated from the outset, reflecting the pressures and the censorship of its central industry of feature film and its concern for its Jim Crow audiences in the South. 

This arrangement also encouraged white performers to borrow what they could from black performers in live venues all over the country and refurbish what they had gathered for their own appearances in film.  It was often done and during the sound period it made Hollywood a profoundly rich and entertaining place in which racial representations were scarcely limited to those few presentations of African Americans in leading roles on the big screen.  

 When Baker decided to emigrate to Europe, she opened up for herself a range of possibilities.  These possibilities were much more promising, albeit not unlimited in France either, as our viewing of La Sirene indicates.

One of the reasons I chose to show you this film, and to introduce you to Josephine Baker in this section of our course is because we've been reading the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, both really important figures in the Harlem Renaissance as writers.  Baker's career in the U.S., in France and touring through Europe overlaps in time with theirs.  No doubt in a different world, Hughes and Hurston would have written for and collaborated with Baker.  As it was both Hughes (who travelled to Europe as a young man) and Hurston probably were both aware of Baker's work but rarely got to witness it since she only performed in the United States on two occasions after she went to live in France.  Although she was active in the French Resistance and supportive of the Allied Forces during WWII, she was effectively blacklisted in the United States in the 1950s because of her liberal and progressive political associations.

More images of Josephine Baker in the course of her illustratious stage and film career in Europe.


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