The cultural phenomenon of international superstar and American ex-pat extraordinaire Joséphine Baker’s success in Paris is mediated primarily through its documentation on film transferred to video and digital formats. In many ways, Baker is a media marvel. Meanwhile, much of the engagement with Baker’s legacy, both written and embodied, takes place through well-established rubrics of theater, choreography, fiction, academic criticism, and even citation in poetry, film, and painting almost as though discussing unmediated material. Thus since we experience Baker’s legacy in reproduction, that is, in highly mediated (and ephemeral) digital formats, what would it mean to mine Baker as a repository that could be explored through digital interpretive practices? As Baker’s image endures as image, the video essay Joséphine Baker Watches Herself reframes Baker as a thinking spectator of her own work.
The prismatic legacy of international superstar and American ex-pat extraordinaire Joséphine Baker is mediated in part through its documentation on film transferred to video and digital formats.1 Baker is a media marvel. And yet much of the engagement with Baker’s legacy, be it written or embodied, takes place through traditional artistic forms that do not directly and materially engage her mediated iconicity the way videographic criticism invited me, a film historian, to explore. For instance, Cush Jumbo’s 2013 thoughtful solo play, Josephine and I, explores thematic connections between her life and Baker’s through her voice, costumes, and charisma.2 Elsewhere, Beyoncé, donning an updated banana skirt, paid tribute to Baker in choreography during Fashion Rocks in 2006, while Elizabeth Alexander’s haunting 1996 persona poem “The Josephine Baker Museum,” imagines what Baker thought about her life and career during those quiet moments at home, such as in her bathtub.3 The list continues, including a photographic citation in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Carrie Mae Weems’s evocative series of photographs, Slow Fade to Black: Josephine Baker (2009–10), and artist Jean-Ulrick Désert’s 2009 tribute, Shrine of the Divine Negress.4 But my own interests, in my aspiration to remember and rethink the figure of Baker, center on her iconicity and its multiplicity, reproduction, and mediation as profoundly connected to the possibility of her authorship. Since we know Baker’s work in reproduction—that is, highly mediated (and ephemeral) digital formats—what would it mean to mine the mediations of Baker as a repository that could be explored through digital interpretive practices?
This is a question I posed to myself several years ago after I had completed the initial manuscript for my book, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism.5 Turning my attention to any number of possible second books, including my research on home movies and Afrosurrealism, I applied to Scholarship in Sound and Image: Workshop on Videographic Criticism at Middlebury College for the summer 2019 session with the idea of diving into something new. I had thought I would find a new subject to think about, but I found that the pace of the workshop and the goals of the exercises required that I work on films I already knew—or thought I knew—backward and forward. I thus dove more deeply into my own Baker research, and through experimenting with a variety of video editing exercises, I made the video essay Joséphine Baker Watches Herself as my final project.
I could not have imagined, nor could I be more pleased, that working with Baker’s recorded performances and interviews in a digital editing program would be so illuminating and indeed transformative in my understanding of Baker and of my relationship to scholarship. Although I had shelved these videos as private files on my Vimeo page for several years, the opportunity to share my experiments in this issue of Feminist Media Histories, and perhaps even encourage other scholars to revisit their published research for new insights, inspired me to reflect again on the power and potentiality of the video essay form for reexamining our supposed conclusions and opening our minds and hearts to what we do not yet know, might not ever know, and cannot fully understand in the creative process in which our subjects have been immersed and to which they have given their lives.
Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker performed in precarious, yet vibrant Black vaudeville shows in the United States before migrating to Paris, France, in 1925. Following her success in the music hall, her manager, Pepito Abatino, and others secured leading roles for her in four French feature films, Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), Princess Tam Tam (1935), and The French Way (1945) as well as the short Hallucinations of a Fireman (1928). Indeed, Baker is part of a tiny constellation of Black leading ladies in early twentieth-century world cinema that includes Evelyn Preer and Nina Mae McKinney, who each in her own way pioneered the idea and the image of Black female film stardom in an era when their peers served largely as the backdrop for sparkling white stars in the key light. Framed through the prism of colonialism, Baker’s characters had Caribbean or African backgrounds, and she spoke French throughout the three sound films in her repertoire.
When in 1927 Baker debuted in moving images, she was already an established music hall star and international celebrity, having launched her career in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1925 before going on to headline at the Folies Bergère in 1926. The year 1927 saw both the release of Siren of the Tropics in France and the publication of her coauthored autobiography Les mémoires of Joséphine Baker, collected and adapted by Marcel Sauvage. At the Folies Bergère, Baker played a variety of characters, and in 1926 she played Fatou in fantastical scenes where a bunch of bananas come to life as a twirling, dancing girl. During this period, Baker and a cast of drummers, plus one actor playing the plantation owner, performed the Fatou scene for the motion picture camera. This material appears in the compilation Josephine Baker: Star of the Folies Bergère and Casino de Paris, which was released to promote her tours internationally. Apparently produced in the mid- to late 1930s, this anthology offers then and now “a scintillating chapter from her exotic repertoire, 1925–1935.”6
Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a center of Black creative production by African American, African, and Caribbean students, writers, and musicians, particularly from Martinique, Senegal, and the United States. In many ways, Baker’s world of cabarets and nightclubs located in the northern neighborhoods of Paris such as Pigalle was a galaxy away from that of Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire and his fellow students at the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter. Paulette and Jane Nardal’s salon, where many intellectuals mingled and shared ideas, took place in the southeastern suburb of Clamart outside Paris.7 As students Césaire, the Senegalese poet and later first president of independent Senegal Leopold Senghor, and the Guyanese writer Léon Damas among others immersed themselves in translated African American writers, in particular Claude McKay whose novel Banjo was published in 1931 in Paris by Editions Rieder.8 They founded the periodical L’Etudiant Noir (The Black Student) to explore what Césaire called “Black angst of the modern world” arising from diaspora and confrontations with racism.9 Yet Joséphine Baker, in her public performances and images, was like a comet that became a new sun, and not entirely a welcome one, in the middle of the Black Paris era’s key tensions: the question of and aspiration toward African authenticity and the effort to present a dignified and accurate narrative of people of color.
In the October 1928 issue of La Dépêche Africaine (African Dispatch), Jane Nardal, early theorist of Négritude, conceptualizes the problem of exoticism in France and how “in vain you strive to destroy illusions deeply rooted in the French mind.” Nardal writes that she had observed some efforts toward “a more truthful picture of people of color” that were abruptly thwarted:
But Joséphine came, Joséphine Baker I mean, and punches a hole in Bernardin’s [exotic] backdrop. This woman of color jumps on stage, her hair lacquered, her smile sparkling; she’s dressed in feathers or banana leaves, but she brings Parisians the latest products of Broadway (Charleston, jazz, etc.). The transition between the past and the present, a fusion between the virgin forest and modernism, is accomplished and made tangible by black Americans.10
Nardal captures the essence of Black Americans’ appeal here, not in praise of their influence, but rather to criticize the distraction she feels they brought to important questions she and her colleagues had been pursuing. For Nardal, the dominance of Baker’s cultural signification made the effort to present more accurate images of Black people even more difficult. I certainly understand the problem Baker’s appeal posed then and now.
As French journalist Rokhaya Diallo wrote in the Washington Post on the occasion of Baker’s induction into the French Pantheon in November 2021, “Baker’s story is often used in France to push forward the myth of a republic that is supposedly more welcoming to Black people than the United States is.”11 In both the early twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, for Nardal and Diallo, Baker served the French as a kind of alibi against accusations of racism. While I concede that Baker’s representation in France might have served this function, I wondered how her work resonated in the United States and shifted the framework of my research to Black film history. When I began to view her work through the lens of African American film history, I found that her value and authenticity as a performer was clearer. At the same time, it needed reframing.
In Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, I contend that Baker enters a narrative she neither controlled nor invented. I situate Baker as a pioneering actress of early world cinema and offer her unique celebrity formation, what I call the cinematic prism, as a central contribution to theorizing film and media histories of Black women and their work on screen. Baker experimented with cinema in its early decades when its performance codes and technologies were still solidifying. In the cinematic prism, I separate Baker’s onscreen characters from their stage and literary precedents and look at her onscreen and offscreen visibility as reflective of one another in many ways but not one and the same. Baker’s iconic mediation contains many images including still, motion, past and present that, as in a prism, are refractive and set at reflexive angles; within all these reflections is Baker, performing her prismatic image.
Baker’s career as a cabaret dancer grew to include films, albums, and product endorsements throughout the 1930s. Her stage persona featured her in haute couture, and her performances focused increasingly on singing rather than dancing. In the postwar era, following her service as a spy during the Resistance, Baker’s military uniform and photographs of her surrounded by her twelve adopted children, the so-called Rainbow Tribe, symbolized her service to France and her political vision of human brotherhood and universalism. In a conversation published in 1985 between Baker, author James Baldwin, and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., then a recent college graduate and writer at Time, Baker said of her decision to migrate, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people, not black so I left. I had been suffocating in the United States. I can’t live anywhere that I am not free.” When Gates asked whether France offered “a respite from racism,” she replied, “The French adopted me immediately. They all went to the beaches to get dark like Josephine Baker, they said.…I felt liberated in Paris. People didn’t stare at me. But if I heard an American accent in the streets of Paris, I became afraid.”12 The distinction Baker makes between the popularity of her image and her own feelings about her life offstage is striking here and is a point I wished to highlight in my video essay even if I did not fully understand her experience.
Baker made a career of being a spectacle, particularly in the 1920s when she performed at the Folies Bergère in the infamous skirt of bananas. Yet, with this enduring image of Baker as image, how often have we considered Baker as a thinking spectator? As I uploaded recordings of both French and English interviews with her, along with other available footage from the 1950s and 1960s, into the editing software, it struck me that Baker’s image, voice, gesture, and affect in motion constitute sensory portals of meaning and knowledge that I had not fully recognized before, revealing a myriad of ways that Baker reflects on herself as worker, on herself as spectacle, on herself as celebrity, on herself as legacy.
In Joséphine Baker Watches Herself, I create dialogues between clips of Baker and excerpts of her famous banana dance through editing techniques such as slow motion, freeze frame, multiple screens, epigraphs, subtitles, music, and, most importantly, use of found audio. I deploy audio of Baker discussing her banana dance performance that I extracted from her 1974 conversation with NBC late night television host Johnny Carson as well as a 1968 interview program from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I disrupt the synchronization of image and sound expected of documentary material, and in addition to translating verbatim what she is saying, I employ subtitles drawn from statements Baker made about her career elsewhere, along with epigraphs from my work. The audio track also incorporates Harry Belafonte’s performance of “Day-O.” With this I wanted to pair Baker with another powerful Black creative genius and emphasize her professionalism and authorship. Belafonte’s song is about work, and it connects the bananas on Baker’s skirt to the history of Jamaican, Panamanian, and other primarily Black male workers and the agricultural industry around the fruit. bell hooks’s theorizing of Black women spectators in her essay “Oppositional Gaze” hovered in my thinking as I pursued the pleasure of visual analysis that she speaks of. Together these techniques gesture beyond the explanatory value of the very material I call on as a primary source of Baker’s thoughts about herself. Their fragmentary nature and my use of inexactitude hopefully provokes viewers to discover a new Baker with the bananas and beyond the bananas.
The title Joséphine Baker Watches Herself highlights the argument and visual strategy of the essay in which the material is arranged through dual screens to imply that the older Baker of the 1960s watches the younger Baker of the 1920s. In my video essay, Baker becomes her own authoritative audience, watching and analyzing her work. And I look on Baker’s recorded speaking voice as providing affective material as well. Her calm, clear, and thoughtful responses to her interviewers’ questions open new means of documenting Baker as the author of her own work—as work, not merely the projected fantasies of her audiences.
For me, the possibilities of new media remediations through videographic criticism are powerfully framed and informed by the evocations of “sass,” as put forth by Anna Everett in her transformative 2009 book, Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace. Everett documents and examines the idea of black consciousness, particularly a pan-African consciousness, as Black “Netizens” found each other through the tools of cyberspace in the mid- to late 1990s. Emphasizing “people’s participatory expressions,” likewise the heart of videographic criticism, Everett defines the early Black web as a critical bypass around the limits of mainstream media and mainstream narratives. Moving with “sass,” fortitude, and ingenuity, she writes, Black women in particular seized cyber tools to “look back” at misrepresentations and assert their presence in the public sphere, even bridging gaps between those who had computers and those who did not; they recast a diaspora of exiles as a network of members.13
As a form of sass (in my practice as a Black woman scholar?), videographic criticism allows me to look back at familiar texts more richly and more critically than at first. Sassy video criticism is concise, witty, and affective, often haunting.
Of course, as with any mode of critical and creative expression, videographic criticism takes time. While learning to employ Adobe Premiere, I first created a “Pechakucha,” a video exercise that runs sixty seconds in duration consisting of ten video sequences, each lasting precisely six seconds and assembled with straight cuts. Working with these technical parameters, I set about examining the narrative system of desire in Zouzou. There are no explanatory titles; it’s all in the look. I edited together moments when the male character Jean, a (white) female character, Claire, and Zouzou are in a scene together and moments when Baker is alone. I also added one continuous sixty-second sequence of audio from the film in which two characters discuss Zouzou’s crush on Jean.
What I saw is that, as the desiring male in the film, Jean’s gaze is like a spotlight. Since Baker was the star of the film, as indicated in the opening titles, one expects the desiring gaze to shine in her direction. But something sadder yet not unexpected happens instead, as the ghost of Baker’s incongruous stardom emerges from the frame. We see Jean caress Claire’s hair. While arm in arm with Zouzou, Jean turns to face Claire as he slips his right hand from her waist to her hip. Zouzou chatters on, and though Jean responds, his eyes follow his object of desire away from Zouzou. And when he finally looks at her, he does so through the extractive lens of a talent promoter who has discovered someone he can spotlight and exploit. If I could go back and edit this video again, I would create freeze frames to make sure the moments I found would be more easily legible to viewers. The scene reveals, in my view, the opportunities and vulnerabilities of Baker’s career in the spotlight. And this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the limitations of representation or, to appropriate a phrase, “the quicksands of representation.”14
Baker’s success is contextualized but not entirely explained by her position in colonial France during a period of cultural transformation that drew on phenomena such as the public presence in Paris of African American soldiers, musicians, and other artists and their embrace by segments of French society, as well as the growing intellectual influence of writers such as Césaire, Senghor, and the Nardal sisters through their publications in Légitme Defense, Revue du Monde Noir, and eventually Tropiques edited by Suzanne Césaire in the 1940s. It is also crucial to note the brutality of Jim Crow in the United States during this era and the circulation of African objects as portals of imagination for an international group of artists who converged in and passed through Paris in the early twentieth century. And the growing Black independent film movement in the United States was crucial, as I discuss in my book. How exactly did it all come together? Whether Baker was the cultivator, the distraction, or the provocateur, many mysteries of her success rest secreted with her in Monaco, where she is buried.
In my reexamination of Baker through her mediation, I found myself unexpectedly moved by being in proximity with her voice, her movements, and her facial expressions through my repeated gestures of pause, fast forward, rewind, cut, and recut on the keyboard. The work of making my video essay brought me closer to Baker than I had felt before. I recall being especially touched by her gentleness and introspection. The clarity of her thinking about not only her career but also her own self resonated with me. In witnessing Baker’s self-knowledge and self-assuredness in her interviews, and to do so in this new and intimate way—just the two of us, with her image on the monitor and me alone in front of the screen while her voice filled my head through the earphones—made me her student, in a sense. I want to bring context to Baker’s work even if it might conflict with her storytelling. Still, as an author of Baker’s film history, I realized I could trust her as an artist. Whatever her paradoxes, excesses, and compromises might be, I would stand beside her and document her pioneering contributions to film history and humanity, one professional woman to another. I respect Baker’s work as work. This was the gift of videographic criticism to me.
I have no desire whatsoever to be a professional filmmaker, and my videos would not have been possible without my decades of reflection and research on Baker. These may well be the only video essays I make, because I cannot imagine devoting myself to a new subject and learning all I would need to know to bring videographic criticism to bear on it. It is important, in my perspective, to recognize that video essays do not a substitute for the research and writing required of a dissertation or a book. This type of work at its core is a reexamination of established knowledge—whether that knowledge was established by you or someone else. Video essays require fluency in a specific subject matter. And then you play.
Baker’s cinematic career is indeed a disruption in the conventional understanding of her as a cultural figure. The video essays and exercises are not studio products or even indie expressionist statements. Rather, they mine Baker’s voice, her laugh, her gestures, her athleticism, her gentleness, and her maturity as an aging woman artist to reframe her as the thinking spectator and discerning creator (or critic?) of work she invented.
I share my video essay and this Pechakucha exercise with readers of Feminist Media Histories in hopes that other “sassy” historians—those engaged in Black women’s legacies, or archival research, and the study of performance and embodiment—might continue to remediate images and sounds that deserve the close focus, reframing, and rediscovery that videographic criticism can provide. It is crucial to “look again” (and again, and again) not just “at” Baker—but “with” her, a mode of looking enabled by video editing software tools and a sensibility open to play, to experimentation, and to the ongoing and not entirely resolvable mystery of “participatory expressions.” Ultimately, Baker was a human being, flawed and creative like us, but, I find, braver. And it was the video essay workshop that provided the skills and contextual frame to rediscover the adventure that is Josephine Baker, and the courage to dive deep into her creativity as well my own.
In this essay Josephine Baker’s name appears with and without an accent aigu (acute) above the e, usually depending on whether the linguistic context is French or English. I chose to add the accent in the title of my video essay as a nod to the Franco-American context of the characters Baker performed—including her own public persona.
Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I (Modern Plays) (London: Methuen Drama, 2013). Josephine and I was first performed at the Etcetera Theatre, a venue seating thirty people, in countercultural Camden, before transferring to the more prestigious Bush Theatre in London where it was directed by Phyllida Christian Lloyd, an award-winning theater director and producer. In 2015 it opened at the Public Theater in New York City.
Beyoncé discussed Baker as her inspiration in the following: Cynthia McFadden, “Beyonce in a Candid Exchange on ‘Dreamgirls,’” ABC News, November 20, 2006, https://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=2665769&page=1. A recording of Beyoncé’s performance during Fashion Rocks! can be viewed at the following link, accessed August 14, 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz9kK76nbzE. I discuss Beyoncé’s homage in greater detail in “What Does Beyoncé See in Josephine Baker?: A Brief Film History of Sampling La Diva, La Bakaire,” in Josephine Baker: A Century in the Spotlight, ed. Kaiama Glover, The Scholar and Feminist Online 6, no. 1 / 6, no. 2 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008): https://sfonline.barnard.edu/what-does-beyonce-see-in-josephine-bakera-brief-film-history-of-sampling-la-diva-la-bakaire/. Elizabeth Alexander, “The Josephine Baker Museum,” Body of Life (Sylmar, CA: Tia Chua Press, 1996), 12–15.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) was Spike Lee’s first professional film, starring Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Daring, a young, beautiful, and artistic woman who is dating three men, each of which represented a version of her ideal man. In the scene with the postcard, Nola’s friend, Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell) and Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks) compete for Nola’s affection. Carrie Mae Weems’s series Slow Fade to Black: Josephine Baker (2009–10) consists of several images of iconic Black women entertainers. For more information and to see photos of the 2019 installation at Metro Hall in Canada, see Carrie Mae Weems: Slow Fade to Black, accessed August 14, 2023, www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com/2019/public-installation/carrie-mae-weems-slow-fade-to-black. Désert’s homage to Baker is part of a series of works titled “Goddess Constellations” and was initially created for installation at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana at the 10th Havana Biennale. See the artist’s website, Jn. Ulrick Désert, accessed August 14, 2023, https://jeanulrickdesert.com/selected/shrine-divine-negress-no1. In addition, I want to highlight two recent Paris-based Baker projects. Entertainer and founder of the Josephine Baker Museum and Parisians of African Descent Brian Scott Bagley successfully campaigned to have a plaque placed outside Baker’s first nightclub at 40 rue Pierre Fontaine. See photos of the celebration and read more about the campaign here: Monique Y. Wells, “A New Plaque for Josephine Baker,” Entrée to Black Paris, June 6, 2019. www.entreetoblackparis.com/blog/josephine-baker-honored-with-a-new-plaque. For two weeks in July 2023, multimedia artist Jeannine Cook hosted Josephine’s Bookshop in Paris, an endeavor that was at once a pop-up store, a salon, and an altar.
Terri Simone Francis, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2021).
Mario Nalpas, Josephine Baker: Star of the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris. 16 mm, Film Study Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
Robert P. Smith, “Black Like That: Paulette Nardal and the Negritude Salon,” CLA Journal 45, no. 1 (2001): 53–68. See also T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, “Femme Négritude: Jane Nardal, La Dépêche Africaine, and the Francophone New Negro,” in Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line, ed. Manning Marable and Vanessa Agard-Jones (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2009), accessed August 14, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Smith, “Black Like That,” 56.
Aimé Césaire, transcript of an interview by Sarah Maldoror and Idriss Makward, 1993–94, 10, unpublished papers, Association of Friends of Sarah Maldoror and Mario De Andrade, St. Denis, France. Note: the transcript may be the edited or unedited version of the film Leon G. Damas (1994).
For a previously published translation, please see Jane Nardal, “Exotic Puppets,” in T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 108–13. Sharpley-Whiting writes: “But Josephine came, Josephine Baker you understand, and bored a hole through the painted backdrop associated with Bernardin” (109). The French source is Jane Nardal, “Pantins exotiques (Exotic Puppets),” La Dépêche Africaine (African Dispatch) 8 (October 1928): 2. Bernardin may refer to Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre who was an 18th century French writer and botanist. His novel Paul et Virginie (1788), set on Mauritius, then a French possession, helped to cement the exoticism Nardal critiques as full of “exotic and enchanting sites, full of idyllic creatures, the good savage and the white man become innocent anew” [as quoted in trans. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting].
Rokhaya Diallo, “Josephine Baker Enters the Panthéon. Don’t Let It Distract from This Larger Story,” Washington Post, November 23, 2021.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview with Josephine Baker and James Baldwin,” Southern Review 21, no. 3 (July 1985): 594–602.
Anna Everett, “Digital Women: The Case of the Million Woman March Online and on Television,” Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 49–78.
Hazel Carby, “The Quicksands of Representation,” Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 163–76.