I cultivate Black film heritage through my research, writing, and curating, particularly in my cherished role as Director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University. My first book Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism examines an unexplored aspect of Baker’s career, deepening the ongoing conversation about race, gender, and performance in the African Diaspora.

Josephine Baker, the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, was both liberated and delightfully undignified, playfully vacillating between allure and colonialist stereotyping.

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, I examine how Baker fashioned her celebrity through cinematic reflexivity, an authorial strategy in which she placed herself, her persona, and her character into visual dialogue.

I contend 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. I reflect upon the double-talk between Baker and her characters in Le Pompier de Folies BergèreLa Sirène des TropiquesZou ZouPrincesse Tam Tam, and The French Way, whose narratives seem to undermine the very stardom they offered. In doing so, I illuminate 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.

As a teacher, writer and curator, my work involves archival research, cultural history, and visual analysis, which I frame within the vicissitudes of power in performance and representation.

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Contact: francist@indiana.edu