We missed the online celebration of what would’ve been Josephine Baker’s birthday 4 days ago; she was born June 3rd, 1906. But better late than never. And being late, of course I had to come with something awesome and cinema-related that no one else published.
The dancer, singer and actress who gained fame in Paris, France, thanks to her risque cabaret and musical hall performances, was born Freda Josephine McDonald, in St. Louis, Missouri.
While Ms Baker did perform on screen in a number of films – notably “Siren of the Tropics” (1927), “Zouzou” (1934) and “Princesse Tam Tam” (1935) – she’s probably more universally recognized for her vaudeville stage musical acts which helped her become maybe the first international black female celebrity.
She was also politically active, making contributions to the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States, and assisted the French Resistance during World War II, becoming the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de guerre.
She died on April 12th, 1975 at age 68.
Since then, there really has been only one true, completed attempt to tell her story in a scripted biopic – the 1991 HBO movie, “The Josephine Baker Story,” which starred Lynn Whitfield as Baker in an incredible performance that should’ve seen the actress’ career really take off after (it didn’t quite). Whitfield would go on to win an Emmy Award for the role.
Louis Gossett Jr., and Ruben Blades co-starred.
The film is available on various home video formats via HBO Home Entertainment.
In the documentary category, check out “Josephine Baker: Black Diva in White Man’s World,” a 45-minute doc released by Artmattan, which focuses on her life and work from a perspective that analyzes images of black people in popular culture. It portrays the artist in the mirror of European colonial clichés and presents her as a resistance fighter, an ambulance driver during WWII, and an outspoken activist against racial discrimination, involved in the worldwide Black Consciousness movement of the 20th century.
And lastly (the only film available online), there was this 2009 BBC-produced documentary titled “Josephine Baker – The First Black Superstar,” which takes a look at the life and times of Baker, from birth to death. It’s only an hour-long, so it condenses her story; but if you’re not at all familiar with Baker’s life, this will serve as a solid intro. I found the entire documentary on YouTube, which is embedded below, so watch it now: