J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ADIFF '10: Josephine Baker, Black Diva

She was the first African American woman to be awarded the French Croix de guerre. It put her in strange company, including the likes of Curtis LeMay and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Josephine Baker might have been American-born, but she captured the heart of Paris. A truly transcendent and diasporic figure, she is perfect touchstone for the 2010 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York. In addition to featuring her iconic likeness on this year’s program, the ADIFF showcases Annette von Wangenheim’s respectful documentary tribute, Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World as part of a gala screening this coming Tuesday.

Judiciously, Diva begins with Baker not in her racy “jungle” costumes, but performing in garb of sophisticated elegance. Those drawn to Baker for reasons beyond musical or historical interest should also be assured, there are plenty of the revealing outfits that made her famous (and still seem daring even by today’s standards). Baker was already paid like a star before she left America. However, it was only as an expatriate in Paris that she was treated as such.

In truth, the vaunted notion of French tolerance and acceptance of African American artists like Baker has been re-evaluated somewhat in recent years. Indeed, Diva addresses Baker’s expat popularity in the context of the aesthetic “primitivism” and Colonial paternalism that informed French popular culture at the time.

Still, there is no denying the connection Baker forged with her more-or-less adopted country. Indeed, the extent of her service on behalf of De Gaulle and the French underground will likely come as a revelation to many viewers of Diva. So will the longevity of her career. We think of Baker frozen in time—specifically the 1920’s, wearing her famous banana skirt. Yet, her stage career extended well into the 1970’s.

Diva briskly tells Baker’s story, detailing her activism as well, without getting bogged down in politics. There are also plenty of conventional talking heads included, but when two of them are legendary dancers like Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, their perspectives are definitely worth hearing.

It is almost eerie how alluring Baker remains eight decades after her Parisian debut. Nicely balancing the sex appeal and the artistry, von Wangeham creates an entertaining and informative valentine with Diva. Recommended with the affection it inspires, Diva screens with From These Roots at Thursday’s (11/30) film gala presentation and also on December 3rd, 7th, 12th, and 14th at Symphony Space Thalia Theater (except for the 12/3 showing, which will be at Anthology Film Archives).

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