Josephine Baker’s French African American Films

Advertisement for Siren of the Tropics starring Josephine Baker in the Baltimore Afro-American, October 19, 1929.

Curator's Note

Despite their international settings in France, the Caribbean, and Tunisia, Josephine Baker’s French-produced francophone films are as pivotal to the study of black modernity in the United States as they are key to African American cinema history.

Famous as a comedy dancer in the U.S., the black American and Anglophone Baker portrayed French-speaking women of color in top-billed roles in four French feature films, the first of which was Sirène des Tropiques/Siren of the Tropics (dir. Henri Étiévant, 1927 France; 1929 U.S.).

Reporting from France, the February 18, 1928 Baltimore Afro-American announced, “Paris Theatre Crowded a Month for ‘Jo’ Baker Film.” Leading up to Siren’s autumn premiere the September 4, 1929 edition of Amsterdam News reported that filmmakers “have been looking with intense interest to the Harlem performers in hopes of finding someone with ‘IT’ to portray the rapidly mounting scripts that await but the arrival of the proper character to depict the roles. …From across the sea comes an ominous rumble of thunder. The dark cloud of hope on the horizon is Josephine Baker.” Baker’s success enabled these journalists to imagine more triumphs of African Americans in the white-dominated talkies.

Siren’s American distribution and black press coverage firmly connects Baker to the race movie circuit and to the representational conundrums of black-cast mainstream films such as Hallelujah (1929) and Hearts in Dixie (1929). Baker’s French films are African American. Yet their Paris-to-New York itinerary and the range of issues that arise in Baker’s race-and-ethnicity burlesques complicate this “African American” in African American cinema.

Baker’s French films reframed her black American-ness within Pygmalion-style musical comedies of unrequited love and colonialism, while their marketing repackaged the Harlem funny girl as an international African American movie star. 


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