Josephine Baker: The Story Of An Awakening


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Josephine Baker: The Story Of An Awakening
"A strong narrative voice-over is cut with insights from black commentators, providing a far more interesting, more rounded picture of Baker than I had before." | Photo: Murray Corman/photo collection - Bryan Hammond (inset photo: Walery/photo collection Bryan Hammond)

Ah, the joy of documentary! Because the first thought, of most people learning that someone reviews films, is of blockbusters and star-studded first nights. If only. Like, it’s not that I’d say no. But such grand opportunities are few and far between, and fewer and further still since coronavirus.

Whereas documentaries? They open a unique window upon the world. There is always the odd dud, as some experimental director allows their ego to overwhelm the subject matter. More often, they are a great way to learn about stuff you didn’t know you didn’t know. That’s the ordinary ones. And now and then you stumble across an unexpected gem that fills in gaps and provides you with new perspectives.

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So it is with Josephine Baker: Story Of An Awakening, a refreshing documentary about the life of Josephine Baker. There, I almost inserted “Parisian dancer”. Because that much I knew of her before, from the many documentaries I have seen about Paris of the ”roaring 20s”. Yet those mislead as much as they reveal. They focus in on a time and a cultural phenomenon, within which Baker loomed large as an exotic performer and dancer of African heritage who shocked and awed French society in equal measure.

Yet within this documentary, the lens pulls back, the focus widens. So yes, there is still the story of Baker on the stage. But now, there is a before and an after. Her story begins with a swift canter through the shocking abuse she endured in her rags to riches rise from absolute poverty. It moves on to the why and wherefore of her presence on stage in Paris at that particular moment in time. But it carries on.

So here she is sharing a platform in Washington in the 60s with Martin Luther King. At first, that feels like a true “what the…?” moment. And then you realise that someone aged 20 in the 20s and achieving stardom in that decade would likely still be around, still be famous and acclaimed in the 60s.

We see the clown side of Baker, which helped launched her career: and this is matched by a series of insights into the culture war that her mere existence sparked into existence. As one commentator observes: “Journalists whined, intellectuals intellectualised and the public had a ball”.

Just a comic with a nice turn in dance? Not at all. For as the lyric of one of her songs tellingly reveals, she had a more than cutting insight into the politics of her existence: “Must I be white sir, to better please you?”

Returning to America for what she hoped might be a triumphal tour, she is unable to find a hotel prepared to take her money or provide her with a room. Europe might have its race issues: but they are as nothing next to the racism she encountered back home. So it’s Paris once more, where her fans love her.

And on to a side to her life that all those roaring 20s documentaries never quite get to. Baker the French Resistance agent. Baker the Forces darling, building a more democratic appeal across all classes, all ethnicities.

Following initial rebuff from black communities in the States, who felt that she had made it for her, but taken no-one along with her, Baker returned as civil rights activist. Now she was using her fame and privilege to open doors for black audiences, and standing up to racism.

She fell foul of McCarthy and the FBI, leading to a travel ban, preventing her from returning to the US for many years, and a US-sponsored boycott of her in South America.

And finally, back once more, the sole woman to share the stage with Martin Luther King at that historic moment in the 60s. So much of this I did not know: and if that is ignorance on my part I plead guilty.

Here the gaps are back-filled efficiently, and, as best I can tell, comprehensively. A strong narrative voice-over is cut with insights from black commentators, providing a far more interesting, more rounded picture of Baker than I had before. For which, all credit to filmmaker Ilana Navaro.

A great film to watch not just during Black History Month, but whenever you have a spare hour on your hands and wish to understand better the struggle against US racism across the 20th century.

The film will be featured exclusively on the Cinémoi Network beginning on Thursday, October 29 at 7pm EST/10pm PST

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2020
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Josephine Baker: The Story Of An Awakening packshot
Portrait of the life and activism of the famous Parisian dancer.

Director: Ilana Navaro

Starring: Léonie Simaga, Josephine Baker, Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Simon Njami, Margo Jefferson, Sara Martins

Year: 2018

Runtime: 52 minutes

Country: France, Belgium, Estonia, Greece


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