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Does anyone reporting on Rihanna playing Josephine Baker have any idea who Josephine Baker was?

Aug 27, 2013

Word on the street is that Rihanna is being tapped to play Josephine Baker in an upcoming film version of the play “Josephine and I.” That’s cool! I love Josephine Baker! And there was that one HBO movie about her 20 years ago starring Lynn Whitfield and Louis Gossett, Jr, but I can always handle another one. I think Josephine Baker happens to have been an exceptionally interesting and badass lady and nothing could make me happier than for other people to know about her.

So, I was really disappointed when I kept seeing all these articles today referring to her as a “seductress” with a “troubled life.”  Articles with titles like “Rihanna to play seductress” and crap. With absolutely no mention of her talent, her incredible success in Vaudeville and in France, or the fact that she was a spy for the French Resistance during WWII, or her contributions to the Civil Rights movement.

Did she have a troubled life? Yeah, when she was a kid, she definitely did. She was married off at 13. She was homeless as a teenager and used to dance for her supper– which is how she ended up getting discovered in the first place. After that, she did damn well for herself.

Was she a seductress? Well, not really. She was beautiful, for sure. But she wasn’t going around doing it like it was her job. She was a dancer, a singer, an actress and an activist.

I find it incredibly disappointing that anyone would refer to a woman like Josephine Baker in these terms and in these terms alone. The only reference I have seen to her actual work and life was a small blurb on how she “became notorious for dancing naked apart for a tutu of fake bananas in the 1920s.” Yeah. That’s really nice.

Let me tell you some things about Miss Josephine Baker. She was one of the best, most highly paid dancers in Vaudeville. She went on tour to France and ended up staying there, since at the time it was a hell of a lot less racist than the US was. Yes, at this time, she did perform her famous banana dance, but this was not a scandalous thing in France at the time. It wasn’t the US where everyone was all Puritanically terrified of boobs and black people.

Baker was hugely popular in France– in fact, she was the most popular entertainer of her time there. Her popularity didn’t translate to the US, because, once again, crazy ass racists. People freaked out when she returned home to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies and she was soon replaces with white burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.

She went back to France and, being so disgusted with the way her home country treated her, renounced her citizenship and became a citizen of France after marrying a Frenchman. Then the WWII broke out.

Instead of flitting around and being a fabulous celebrity, Josephine Baker used her celebrity to help her new adopted country, and her ability to travel around, and hobnob with high ranking officials from Japan and Germany without looking suspect made her an ideal spy for the French Resistance. She would return with secrets printed on invisible ink on her sheet music.

She helped people who were in danger from the Nazis get the paperwork and VISAs they needed to get out. That is freaking amazing. For her service, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal.

After the war, Baker adopted 12 children of mixed ethnicity and heritage, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe.” It was a part of her effort to combat racism, and to do what she could with her riches to help the world. When visiting the US, she refused to perform in segregated theaters.

Though she lived in France, she was still heavily involved in the US Civil Rights movement. She was, in fact, the only woman originally on the roster to speak at the March on Washington, although she notably brought Rosa Parks right up there to give a speech as well. After Dr. King died, Coretta Scott King asked her if she could take over as the unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement– but after giving it some thought, she regretfully declined, citing her need for time to take care of her children.

This is the kind of woman Josephine Baker was. To reduce her to merely a “seductress with a troubled life” makes me so ill I cannot even tell you. It is detrimental to all women when a woman as accomplished as she was is dismissed as being nothing more than a sex object, or as having been some kind of jazz age celebrity trainwreck. It’s also disturbing in its similarity to the way she was treated by this country in her lifetime.

I am sure that the movie itself will be more respectful of Baker’s legacy, and hopefully, sometime between then and now, people will bother to find out who she was before going and writing bullshit like this.


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