Dancer, singer, actor, activist, and incandescent emblem of Jazz Age Paris, the elegant, vivacious, and startlingly modern Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, but it was in her adopted home of France that she first rose to fame performing in the legendary Folies Bergère. Her uninhibited dancing and magnetic stage presence soon established Baker as the toast of Europe, opening the doors to a film career that made her the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture (SIREN OF THE TROPICS). Though her screen vehicles—including the splashy backstage musical ZOU ZOU, which paired her with a young Jean Gabin, and the exuberant comedy PRINCESSE TAM–TAM—often cast her in colonialist fantasies, Baker’s supernova talents and megawatt charisma shone through, refusing to be marginalized. Baker was also a fearless participant in the French Resistance, an outspoken civil rights advocate who refused to perform for segregated audiences, and a bisexual trailblazer who played with gender tropes and iconography in ways that were decades ahead of her time.
Please be advised: some of the films contain offensive racial stereotypes. For more information, we suggest watching scholar Terri Simone Francis contextualize the films in the “Terri Simone Francis on Josephine Baker” program below.
In the following interview, conducted by filmmaker Ina Diane Archer in 2021, scholar Terri Simone Francis explores Josephine Baker’s early career, her transition from screen to stage, and the way colonialist fantasies vie with Baker’s own vision and ambition in her films.
Directed by Joe Francis • 1927 • France
Starring Josephine Baker, André Luguet, Hélène Hallier
St. Louis–born and Harlem-raised Paris music hall superstar Josephine Baker, the highest-paid entertainer of her day, is only one of the legends featured in this vintage 1927 collection of Le Jazz Hot ...
Directed by Marc Allégret • 1934 • France
Starring Josephine Baker, Jean Gabin, Pierre Larquey
Josephine Baker’s debut talkie—a huge success in France upon its original release—casts her opposite Jean Gabin, who was himself on the brink of international stardom. In the tradition of 42ND STREET a...