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Molly McQuade

La Baker


Josephine Baker: Image and Icon
National Portrait Gallery
Washington, D.C.
November 24, 2006, through March 18, 2007
Admission: free

Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man's World
Dance on Camera Festival
Walter Reade Theatre
New York, NY
January 3rd and 12th, 2007
Admission: $10

Reviewed by Molly McQuade, January 25, 2007

In recent writing about her, the phallic bravado of Josephine Baker seems mostly ignored or avoided. Yet to an unprejudiced eye, the sleek vertical aplomb is evident.

For a conspicuous example of it, only look at Baker garbed in her notorious banana outfit in a photograph at the National Portrait Gallery's current show, "Josephine Baker: Image and Icon." Her supple, nearly naked body of the tropics roosts, unpropped, almost without secondary female curves or marks, uncurling thanks to prolonged legs. No limb seems separate. Their physical unity--profligacy, more like?--arches, as if innocent. I couldn't call this merely androgynous, or even insouciant. The body's upstart stretch is capped, with a rhythmic squeeze, by twin corks: Baker's brow, and her rear. But to inventory any such might seem to dance around the main point, which is the shared impact: a phallic signature that wears a woman like a sheath.

At the Portrait Gallery, the gelatin silverprints of Stanislaw Wery, from the 1920s, are not alone in showing us the woman as artistically transgendered. But Wery is worth lingering over. For his oddly puritanical eye clad Baker in misty tones, as though to dress her in a secret, cloudy skin apparent only to some. Coated in this gray velvet by him, she could, if asked, unzip for "them"--not for just anyone--like a showboating male Mississippi waiter, excellently elegant, gummed up in understated blackface. You'd have to fathom the secret to be pleased completely by the portrait.

Though I'm not pleased completely, Baker fascinates me. To start with, who could balk at the chic kindness of the smile?

To feel the smile, see Annette von Wangenheim's documentary, "Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man's World," which was unveiled on January 3rd and 12th in the Dance on Camera Festival at New York's Walter Reade Theatre. A curiously poignant scene in the film shows Baker's smile, dancing. While entertaining French troops during World War II, she floats from her pedestal, in this film, not to kiss the soldiers, but to invite them to be kissed by her. Only if they gallantly accept the invitation will the men receive a kiss. The glide and twinkle of her courtesy hold the stage even more than the glide of Baker's legs.

The French soldiers were smitten. I can't love Baker in that way, or in the manner of dancers like Arthur Mitchell, Geoffrey Holder, or Carmen de Lavallade, all of whom spoke tenderly of her in New York to introduce the documentary. There is a difference between liking and loving, loving like a fan. Nor can I love her in the style of all those male tuxedos shimmering around her betimes.

Why can't I? Maybe because of her mimed and half-mummified gender, which alerts and delights my mind, but doesn't win my soul. Liking will have to do, for now.

So, this is what I like: a dancer's zeal that won't blow out. That it could be unmissable even in still photos long after the fact says something not only about Baker's posthumous longevity but also about her photographers, replying to her. However stationary, she holds on happily to the strong motive to move. In many pictures, what matters most about the motive can be found in the tumult of her legs.

This is so even in "The Chocolate Dandies" (1924), her early stage appearance, from which Baker emerges in one charming Portrait Gallery image as a gawky goof who poses askew with clownish eyes crossed, loopy grin, and knees jutting raw from beneath a schoolgirl skirt. By lampooning that ugly hopscotch hoyden as herself, Baker also gives us a candid glimpse of girl as virtuoso at beating herself up, for the amusement of an audience; her satirical comedy is cruel, pained, violent, and racially perverse. But then, she was a hireling. The crooked body looks pummeled. Nonetheless, the very pause in the powerful jut of those knees under their skirt seems to say that this one will walk away, free.

She had to go to Paris--and stay there--to become herself, because in America she was spat upon, sometimes by white ladies. As Baker puts it, succinctly, in Von Wangenheim's documentary, "I was hurt because I was born a Negro." Her initial "pickaninny" performances in the U.S. may have hurt her more, yet from them sashayed another Baker, not always conscious of her choices or their implications, but choosing them: the heroic version of herself.
To proceed, did Baker need, at times, to close her eyes? According to one of her adopted sons, quoted in Von Wangenheim's film, before World War II she did not recognize the inherent colonialism of some of her assigned roles. The historian Charles Onana agrees that in "Zou-Zou," Baker remained unaware of her character's entrapment in the famous birdcage-boudoir as a racially redolent disaster. Yet certainly her urbanity spoke also for itself, caged or not: this sophisticated sister of the onetime hoyden wouldn't be doing that hoyden thing ever again
Still, what would it be like to hear the hoyden and the sophisticated lady attempt a conversation? Neither the documentary nor the gallery makes that attempt explicitly, or frames the possibility with noticeable emphasis. The hoyden and the lady do not speak together, nor are they placed beside one another in a necessary tango. Beyond that, Von Wangenheim's film also lacks a binding intention. A gallery on its own terms, the documentary offers opinions about Baker from a series of experts and intimates, interspersed with scenes of dancing, but an editorial view is largely absent. For its part, the National Portrait Gallery anthologizes well-known aspects of Baker, but does not portray her analytically. The show ran first in St. Louis from April through August, 2006, at the Sheldon Art Galleries to observe the hundredth anniversary of Baker's birth in 1906.

This leaves us to draw our own editorial conclusions, or at least to ask our own questions. Mine concern Baker's seeming phallic voguing, and the plausible responses to it, from any side. The critic Phyllis Rose (Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time), quoted by Von Wangenheim, does mention those telltale bananas in the costume as wittily phallic, but no one in the film describes the dancer herself in that way. So I'm tempted to revisit "Zou-Zou," which can be seen in excerpt at the Portrait Gallery, for a little more support, as it were.

Although the movie makes a lengthy, glamorous case for lace-and-champagne shimmy, with many bared midriffs, this Cinderella saga of a black French laundress, who leaps to fame on the stage thanks partly to her unrequited love for a white guy, is redeemed by the unpremeditated onset of the true Baker--meaning the phallic Baker--on just that stage, where she is not (yet) supposed to be, where she doesn't even realize (yet) that an audience awaits, watching her each and every move. What happens on that forbidden stage could seem a marvel.

For what happens early on that stage in a signature scene is the triumph of the runaway who doesn't know she is one. Suddenly, Baker's a flaunted slave--freed, sort of. She seems to believe she's just playing around. Yet the camera doesn't. The camera takes her seriously.

What does the camera expose? First of all, the slave, doubled: for in the scene, Baker's shadow dances with her figure, the shadow larger and darker beside the body in its pale, glittery one-piece. Second, the camera gives us Baker with her back to us, the limbs outré, flung, demanded. Persisting, the sight of that back does more than remove the human face or the female self from Baker's body, although it does both. The back elongates as well, vertically and sinuously, as do the legs. The back roosts and preens, phallically.

While the dancing is anything but hobbledehoy--Baker does her own kind of can-can, Charleston, et cetera--it is an antic frenzy, compared with the dancer's later grand-dame debut in "Zou-Zou." Now Baker's character seizes freedom, doing all in a stolen moment. Meanwhile, her boyfriend-who-won't-be-one ogles her, and it's he who literally raises the curtain on her future career.

Under the circumstances, Baker looks about as male as she could: all lean sinew, arched, unfurling, gaily explosive. And alone. Notoriously, she has no true partner. She rises without one, tossing at us--without seeing it--a talent too original and strange to earn any echo. (Unless you happened to ferret out the secret, and could speak the echo.)

As far as uncovering secrets goes, I realize that my phallic trope, concocted here, is a little less than obvious. Baker's chanteuse-and-French-Resistance aftermath in her career may seem to rule it out. The great lady (and prodigious mother) is what remains most durably, thanks partly to the worship of the faithful.

Yet Baker in her long life was ever the anomaly: artistically, politically, racially, morally. So what not just admit the strangeness?


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