Friday, June 23, 2006

Black Magic: Josephine Baker's role in the Exotic Trend of 20's and 30's world Cinema.

What happens when we watch a "racist" film? Well, what happens when I (or you, perhaps?), a gay, white male sits down with a film from the 30's which now reads as raceploitation rather than the rags to riches exotic star vehicle it functioned as in its hey day. The other night, I indulged in Princess Tam Tam. It's a slight variation on a story we've heard a hundred times or more. A novelist vacations in Africa to observe the "savages" and finds a charming peasant girl who he decides to Eliza Doolittle up (for the sake of the novel)and masquerade as an African Princess. It almost goes without saying that the "impoverished" scenes are absurdly stereotypic. One scene depicts Baker dancing amid Roman ruins with dozens of clapping adolescent street beggars, shaking her booty in such a way that makes you wonder how far we actually have progressed in terms of "faithful" representation.

One must remember this is a French production and the French are, however progressive in countless other aspects, quite guilty when it comes to racist tendencies. That being said, Miss Baker does her damnedest to transcend all of this seedy exoticness (worlds apart from that glamorous exoticism personified by the likes of Dietrich and Garbo, even Anna Mae Wong, to a certain, limited extent). She has a remarkably amiable personality. It is one that is infectious, allowing the viewer little choice but to adore her. And in those moments when the Tam Tam (tom tom) drum belches forth its ravishing rhythm, Baker also has her moment... ahem, in the sun. More limber and lively than most other "dance" numbers I have seen in these sorts of pictures, Baker on all fronts (those not familiar with her miraculous voice should rectify that a.s.a.p.) proves her case as a tremendous entertainer.

But how should one react, here? Of course, we don't cast aside Birth of a Nation for its seething racism. But a vehicle like Princess Tam Tam is so inseparable from its racially charged brand of stereotyping that one wonders how it should be studied. Certainly to look at this as a piece of kitsch, however appealing, is in poor taste. In a boating scene, when an Arab? servant (who is portrayed by a white actor in black face) grasps the oar, the camera holds on that gesture as it mimics the immense penis the shot would insinuate the Arab? to possess.

I am not one for shying away. My first reaction is to clasp a hand over my mouth in bewilderment. But what next. Refusing to yield to liberal guilt, (otherwise I might have considered Crash best movie of last year) I suspect the only way to take this is in the political and cultural economy of its time. Baker was "other" in a time when "other" sold like hotcakes. I have been tracing this trend in 20's and 30's world cinema recently and, admittedly having done no reading on it, whatsoever am completely baffled as to why, as tensions began to rise, escalating in WWII, people would look to the "other" for their source of amusement. Other, Miss Maria Montez has shown us, is a brand of absolute escapism. That I understand. But many of these vixens and starlets were powerful, thinking women. Many were scheming, though Baker was not. I suppose it is wrong to include Baker in the trend of the Dietrich, Garbo, Wong paradigm. So is it, to a lesser extent, to include Wong in the former list. Each figure, though exotic, was still completely associated with those stereotypes associated with their race. It was not a clump of "others" as I had suspected. Dietrich was masochistic and impenetrable. Wong was conniving and elusive. Baker was just a happy savage. It's rather sad (I guess) that the film is mostly pleasurable. Perhaps that's not the sad part. Certainly it is unfortunate that she could never be cast to play any other part (one not exclusively linked to her blackness). I guess the most denigrating thing is the fact that this obviously pleasant and accepting woman was never given the space to shine as anything but a novelty. That is was taints so greatly in something like Princess Tam Tam. And even more disparagingly, I don't see our contemporary cinema as being a whole lot better.


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