Terri Francis is the author of Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Indiana University Press, 2021) and a 2022 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writing Grantee. Dr. Francis is a writer, professor, and film curator based in Miami.
Josephine Baker, among the first black women to star in a major motion picture, was both liberated and delightfully undignified, playfully vacillating between colonialist stereotyping and modernist allure.
Nicknamed the “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl,” and “Creole Goddess,” Baker blended the sensual and the comedic when taking 1920s Europe by storm. Back home in the United States, Baker’s film career brought hope to the black press that a new cinema centered on black glamour would come to fruition. In Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, Francis examines how Baker fashioned her celebrity through cinematic reflexivity, an authorial strategy in which she placed herself, her persona, and her character into visual dialogue.
Francis contends that though Baker was an African American actress who lived and worked in France exclusively with a white film company, white costars, white writers, and white directors, she holds monumental significance for African American cinema as the first truly global black woman film star. She reflects upon the double-talk between Baker and her characters in Le Pompier de Folies Bergère, La Sirène des Tropiques, Zou Zou, Princesse Tam Tam, and The French Way, whose narratives seem to undermine the very stardom they offered.
In doing so, Francis illuminates the most resonant links between emergent African American cinephilia, the diverse opinions of Baker in the popular press, and African Americans’ broader aspirations for progress toward racial equality.