Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World is a curious film: not quite a short film at 45 minutes but neither a full-length feature, it contains some amazing footage and insights into one of the 20th century’s great performers.
Born in St Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker left school and began performing in her early teens, eventually heading to New York to dance in a chorus line. In 1925 she performed in France and became an instant success, perhaps due to her costumes (which left little to the imagination – she is most famously depicted in her costume made of a string of bananas) and perhaps due to her ability to blend slapstick with sensuality. Greater success followed which allowed her to indulge her passions for children – Baker adopted 12 from many different nations – and equal rights, and eventually become a prominent member of the American Civil Rights Movement. She died peacefully in 1975 just days after starring in a retrospective honouring her 50 years performing in France.
Director Annette von Wagenheim has knitted together a wonderful collection of footage from the 1920s and later, which allow a glimpse for the modern viewer of Baker’s stagecraft and charisma. These clips are interspersed with interviews from family and friends including adopted son Brian Bouillon-Baker, although these pieces tend to be a little superficial in content. Perhaps it is inevitable that a biographic documentary made for a subject long-deceased will lack testimony of real insight, however the contributions of several of the interviewees is nothing more than hero worship.
It is a little disappointing that the incredible achievements of Baker during her life are so tightly packed together into a short-ish film, as her life could readily inspire a feature length documentary or even biopic. Baker the decorated member of the French Resistance is almost lost alongside Baker the only female speaker at 1963’s famous civil rights rally ‘March on Washington’ alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. The speed at which the fifty years from her rise in Paris to her death is covered means it is only on reflection that one senses how remarkable her story is. Perhaps with a more capacious running time the various accomplishments of Baker’s life would be more appropriately accentuated.
Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World is a highly enjoyable glimpse at the life of a 20th-century legend, and although it is flawed, its highlights are more than worth its missteps. It is screening in the Dance Documentaries component of the ReelDance International Dance On Screen Festival and is preceded by the entertaining short film and ReelDance Best Documentary 2008 Winner Dance Like Your Old Man.Rating: