* Published specifically for The Biopic Blogathon hosted by Annette at Hometowns to Hollywood *
Unlike quite a few of my classic film contemporaries, I did not grow up around people who were interested in Old Hollywood or who enjoyed watching movies for fun. The most that I received was random tidbits of juicy, gossipy information from my mother when the mood came over her. While none of this information served any great purpose, it did develop my curiosity and budding fascination for pop culture as a whole. I was constantly in front of the television soaking up whatever I could – and was allowed – to watch. In the late 1980s, we were able to access cable for the first time which included getting a subscription to HBO. Not only did I get to watch a plethora of motion pictures (even if they were often repeated), I also profited from their original programming which was steadily becoming some of the best around.
In 1991, HBO released its most coveted and expensive project to date: The Josephine Baker Story. It was based on the life and career of American born Black singer Josephine Baker who became an even bigger, more beloved entertainer around the world than in her native country.
The Josephine Baker Story
As a child in Missouri at the turn of the 20th century, Josephine knew only extreme poverty and feared the fatal violence that threatened people of colour. These experiences left a mark on her that would never be erased and which shaped her way of being until the day she died. The inequalities she endured also had an impact on her personality as an artist. Very early on, well before she had even decided to turn professional, Josephine started using comedy as a way to detract people’s attention from her skin colour. Making funny faces and dancing in an awkward fashion never failed to bring laughs and appreciation from onlookers. She eventually moved out of St. Louis vaudeville and to New York City where she performed on Broadway to White audiences. Still, it was damning to be forced to wear blackface when performing. When a chance came for her to perform in Paris, Josephine was excited about the opportunity and quickly became famous. The film portrays that Josephine was initially hesitant to appear nude but later embraced the idea after realising that it would open up doors to her. The idea of performing in the flesh became entrancing, giving her boundless freedom of expression without it being seen as cheap or vulgar.
Josephine’s popularity grew in France and she mainly performed outside of the United States due to her fear of going back home. Her rough beginnings in St. Louis and the discord that she had with her family kept her away, not to mention an unsettling racial climate that did not improve over time. Even her sister’s death was not enough to persuade her to go back for the funeral. Although the decision saddened her, Josephine knew that her sister would understand. Yes, she was safe from racial profiling in France, particularly since she was wealthy and famous, but more importantly she felt accepted in the French society. She completely immersed herself in the culture, learning the language like a native (both oral and written) and even becoming a citizen. Her eventual return to the U.S. in the mid-1930s to tour and guest star in the Ziegfeld Follies was harshly esteemed, cancelling any plans for Josephine to head out to Hollywood. Just like 20 years prior, she was faced with polarising racism and subpar treatment that both frustrated her and broke her heart.
The film focuses a good deal on the social injustices that Josephine faced as a Black woman, mostly during her time in America as a child and when she returned as an adult. It was important that these aspects of her life were acknowledged because they always bore heavily on her mind. Her choice to obtain the French nationality was definitely something that she wanted and was neither forced onto her nor offered to her as a last ditch solution. At that time, it was not possible to maintain two nationalities in either France or the United States. In fact, the concept of dual citizenship was banned in France until 1973, 36 years after Josephine was naturalised and only 2 years before her untimely death. While it was a mark of great defiance and relief to renounce her American citizenship, deep down it was a hard decision to make because she had a certain number of roots there. She never stopped speaking English and spoke her mother tongue with her children. I think that she was not embarrassed of her American origin but was unspeakably saddened about both being rejected and the country not changing for the better.
Along with performing as a singer and occasional actress, Josephine was deeply involved in humanitarian efforts both during and after wartime. During the early years of the Second World War, she worked as a secret agent for the French military intelligence. According to the film, she also worked with the Americans Armed Forces who solicited her aid even though she was no longer a citizen. Privately, she sought to create her own “Rainbow Tribe” of children from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Left barren after a devastating stillbirth, Josephine was intent on adopting as many children as she could. In her eyes, she had much love to spread and wanted to create a positive example for the world to see. She and her fourth husband adopted a total of 12 children, satisfying Josephine’s desire to be a mother and coinciding with her efforts in the Civil Rights Movement. As you can gather from the film and from existing interviews, Josephine Baker was a fighter who never gave up, no matter what obstacle lay ahead.
When I first watched this film as an adolescent, I remember being completely captivated by Lynn Whitfield’s immense beauty. Her smile was contagious, just as the real Josephine’s had been. Moreover, she had an incredible figure that particularly intrigued me as a girl going through puberty. Growing up, I had not witnessed any nudity on screen and seeing Lynn’s bare breasts was a revelation. It was so feminine and erotic but not at all shocking. While I could only dream to have a body that was so lovely, I felt the same kind of liberation that Josephine felt when she danced in the nude. Josephine and Lynn as Josephine owned their sexualities and womanhoods.
Overall the film was one of high quality and portrayed her life in a relatively factual manner. Some details of Josephine’s life were omitted, such as her bisexuality and the loss of her stillborn child. Other elements were glazed over such as Josephine’s reconciliation with her mother and how much she was involved in her daughter’s later life in France.
What lacks the most, however, is the personal touch in capturing the relationship that Josephine had with France, the French people and the French language. Josephine had an exceptional command of the French language that allowed her to star in French films and create a link with her adoring fans. She lived the French way without any questions and without any disrespect to cultural norms. This is not an easy feat when you are bi-cultural, especially when you are missing the traditions of your home country. I admire Josephine’s courage just as I admired Princess Grace’s. The two became friends on a different note than their shared cultures though I believe that it helped them understand each other all the better. It is wonderful that their friendship endured, even in dark moments and when all hope seemed to have been lost.
Château des Milandes
( *All pictures at the castle were taken by me and my husband. Much gratitude is given to the museum. )
In addition to being an icon, a mother and an activist, Josephine was fiercely proud of the home she purchased in France. It was not an ordinary house but rather a Renaissance period castle that had long been in a family of nobility.
When Josephine took out a lease on the castle, it was in a certain state of disrepair. Although the castle had undergone lengthy exterior restorations from 1900 – 1914, there had been no one living in it on a regular, everyday basis. The interior was out-of-date when it came to electrical wiring and proper insulation plus it was not equipped with modern elements like a functioning kitchen and bathroom(s). Josephine started doing work on the castle as soon as she moved in, perhaps already with the idea that she would one day become its owner. She transformed the place into a comfortable demure that complimented and preserved the castle’s original style. She maintained antiquated parts of the castle with their original furnishings (shutters, illustrated window panes, door frames) and with the sparse furniture that remained. Recently, the museum discovered authentic markings that were hand-painted with ochre and that date from the end of the 15th century.
The most remarkable aspect of the Château des Milandes is not the sprawling estate, the sweet animals or the picturesque countryside. It is the feeling you get when you are there; the spirit of Josephine Baker that is alive and welcoming. There is nothing spooky or tragic lingering in the air. Instead, the sound of Josephine’s voice – whether she is speaking on an interview or singing one of her famous tunes – resonate throughout the house. Seeing her belongings and personal mementos make you feel as if you had known her personally and moreover, as if she had invited you there herself. I have rarely been as happy and touched visiting a landmark as I was when visiting Milandes. To this day, I have an immense gratitude for having been able to visit and discover a completely different Josephine Baker than I had known before.
This past July, before my family and I left the region of Aquitaine to move to Northern France, we took the opportunity to visit the Château des Milandes. Being geographically close was a plus but in all honesty, I wanted to make the trip as a virtual gift to my friend in classic film, Dominique. She is a huge fan of Josephine and has even made her own version of the banana skirt! Because Dominique’s work is so special and her efforts so selfless, I wanted to give her something to say “thank you” before being such a guiding light in our community and specifically to the memory of famous African-American artists.
Activism & The Allied Effort
Inside the Château
Grounds & Brasserie
Josephine Baker Memorial