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Jai Deux Amours: A reflection on the work/s of Josephine Baker and Alanis Obomsawin

J’ai deux amours (1) (I have two loves) and they are not my country and Paris. To be honest, it would be very difficult to reduce my passions to only two concepts. However, two artists may sum up my ideals in the fields of life struggle and art, and they are Josephine Baker and Alanis Obomsawin.

 

Any professional working in the cultural industry, regardless of any specific field, would tell you the same thing: it is virtually impossible not to fall for the works of many different artists when the essence of your job is to grow familiar with so many of them. However, more than just inspiring me professionally, both Baker and Obomsawin possess an ability to speak to me, as a woman, on a multitude of levels. I tried to rationalize where this appreciation came from as their respective careers and characters, one might argue,  could not be more different. Both artists, however, share the fact that they are women of colour. Indeed,  their respective minority backgrounds undoubtedly played a significant part in their professional life by impacting their artistic careers. It is very interesting to ask oneself if their relative success (I say relative because their works remain somewhat invisible to the wider public, even having  reached critical recognition) was gained thanks to - or in spite of - their status as women of colour, in a global cultural industry  where main production and distribution circuits remain impervious to both female creators and minorities’ discourses.


I fell for Josephine Baker a long time ago and it was cinema that brought me to her. I first discovered her voice in movies featuring her songs. Having said this, for me, she is more than just her songs (this is not to negate their brilliance), in the same way that her artistic performance is so much more than a pretext to fill in cinematic soundtracks.I had no idea I was looking for an artist like her to help open my eyes on the ways in which  a woman can be  a hero regardless of her sex and race, both of which are discriminatory factors within society. Baker  fought hard in attempts to make people see beyond her skin colour and femininity, while never pretending to be someone she was not. She was black and talented: ‘’lucky’’ enough to sing like a ‘’white-woman’’ but deemed  somehow ‘’too dark’’ to perform in  music-halls. Unrelenting, she persevered and remained faithful to who she was.

 

Like many female artists  of her time, she made a lot of trade-offs between her career and her private life: trade-offs that often led to personal loss. Having a career as a woman was - and still is - challenging enough; having a career as a black woman was - and still is - even harder, especially in the arts industry. One would often feel compelled to sacrifice their personal life for work opportunities in order to significantly evolve within the professional world. I can only imagine how much harder it must have been due to the additional stereotypes a woman of colour had and still has to face. So yes, Josephine Baker first married at 14 and yes, some of her lovers allowed her to reach some heights before she flew on her own, and yes, she starred in dubious (in regards of the figure of the ‘’bon sauvage’’, the good savage, she impersonated) but highly successful shows in Europe. She had to be tough to become independant and make her own choices, which is evident in the way she built herself a career. However, by doing so she gradually changed the way people looked at her body. Josephine becomes more than a body when we further explore the depth and meaning of her life.

Josephine Baker was a singer, a comic, an exotic dancer and an actress. She was also a soldier and spy during Wolrd War II and a committed woman her entire life: she was an active agent of progress in all artistic, military (2) and social fields. She built herself a multicultural family when living in France, which allowed her to achieve for a short-lived moment the life she dreamt of, far away from her native country, the United States of America, that scared her immensely for its racial prejudices.(3) Her whole life embodies her ideals of diversity, equality and hope.

I think that her performances as an artist and her choices as a woman are a testimony to the strength of women of colour. How can I convey my frustration when I see that she is now mostly forgotten, only remembered as a symbol of glamour in shallow biopics, her character making appalling or fleeting cameo appearances here and there in various productions (see Anastasia, 1997 or Midnight in Paris, 2011).Which act only as insults to her complex character. Throughout her career cinema never gave credit to her talent and the richness of her life, neither after she passed away, nor when she was alive.She acted in several films between the late 20s and mid 40s (and occasionally in the 70s), and she often impersonated the kind of roles expected from a glamorous black woman at the time.

 

I recently had the opportunity to watch Zouzou (4) (1934) by Marc Allegret shot three years before Josephine obtained French citizenship. In this fiction film, you can see how her character (Zouzou) is stigmatised for her personal ambitions and reduced to an appropriate fate (that is to say, an unhappy one). It might be tempting to blame this shortsightedness on the era alone but many  black female characters in contemporary cinema are not fully realised. Bell Hooks remark resonates particularly well when it comes to the depictions of black lives on-screen: they are stripped of their value.(5) When you see Josephine Baker onscreen in Zouzou, and when you know her real career, life and struggles, you can barely stand the sad, self-sacrificing character offered to you. Of course it is a fiction film and she is not supposed to play her own role (even though the similarities with the real Josephine are undeniably there), but her character appears totally disposable, an agent working for the happiness of the other characters, stripped of her right to be rightfully considered. The pattern of this film is very clear, the black woman must be glamorous but devoted to the white men she loves (adoptive father and brother), she must sacrifice her career for them and if she reaches professional success as an artist, she ought to end up alone. Her blue-eyed and blond love interest leaves her side without a second glance in her direction, running away with an equally blond and fair woman. It is the phoniest ending you could come across. After all, the film was just a pretext to see Josephine’s funny face and appealing performances onscreen but her character did not deserve a happy ending whatsoever. So here she is, Josephine Baker, reduced to the role of a weeping woman, singing her songs onstage for a predominantly white audience to admire. In this context, her body is an object of lust for the (white, male) gaze, as well as ‘exotic’ fantasy.

The good Josephine Baker did in the name of progress and the injustices she faced (and sometimes agreed upon) personally inspired me. As a human being, she possesses a strange mix of righteousness, carefree audacity and steady strength. She is also a tragic example of how status can cage you. However, she was unapologetic about her choices,showing her determination and strength. She played these games as she fought for better futures.

 

Another individual whom is quite different but equally as inspiring as Josephine Baker to me is Alanis Obomsawin. I had no idea of the existence of the Abenaki artist and activist Alanis Obomsawin, much to my shame, before discovering her films through the NFB/ONF platform (6) very recently. Browsing through their online library it is the kind of moment when you realise that public institutions are truly invaluable when it comes to preserving and promoting unique pieces of work such as Obomsawin’s.

 

Alanis Obomsawin is a documentary filmmaker and permanent member of the National Film Board of Canada since the 70s. She is part of Studio 1, the Native studio of the institution and, as a female filmmaker, she is also a member of the NFB/ONF New Initiatives in Film created to support black and native women in terms of creation. She is a member of the Aboriginal Voices board and the Native Peoples Television Network (APTN) among many other national and international institutions linked to cultural, media or social stakes. One is instantly struck by the determination of her discourse regarding the rights of native peoples in Canada, and also by the intransigence of her artistic stance which aims to promote alternative cultures such as the ways of lives of indigenous nations. She returns to the individuals she films the consideration they are stripped off within wider society as she depicts their lives and culture as valuable and meaningful. 

What is expressed most astutely through her films is the creative and productive expression of frustration and culturally ingrained anger. It is amazing to watch the negative pressures an individual can experience turn into positive acts of creation that impact and shape society. Alanis Obomsawin is not only a filmmaker, she is also a singer and a storyteller. She has always made use of her voice to share the stories of the native American minorities and defend their cultural identities.Her films possess this same aim to talk about the never ending fights for existence native peoples must undertake within a society that clearly want them to disappear. And she tells these stories from her own perspective as a native woman, her voice giving space for other to join in.

 

‘’ There’s more and more work to be done (…) because if there is a place where it can bring help to people, it is to work in the documentary world, and to make people know each other helps for a country to understand each other and to make a better place for all people… ‘’
- Alanis Obomsawin.

 

It appears even more important that these voices should be heard at a time when minorities’ opinions remain unacknowledged and ignored for many different reasons. Native Americans are a minority group (minority groups, actually) particularly concerned by the almost systematic ignorance of treaties and legal agreements on the part of official institutions, the latest being Donald Trump’s decision to drill through the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s sacred lands even though native nations succeeded to temporarily postpone the environmental and cultural catastrophe. This example is only one of the numerous issues native Americans, in all the complexity of their culture, face today.

 

Alanis Obomsawin documents this kind of cultural oppression and repression generally motivated by financial profit and corporate benefits (sometimes under the guise of other pretenses such as environmental preservation) since the 1980s, starting with her film Les événements de Restigouche (7) (Incident at Restigouche, 1984) which talks  about the 1981 confrontations between 550 Canadian police officers and a community of 150 native Americans and their family. The work features an interesting face-to-face confrontation, an interview by Alanis Obomsawin herself with the Minister Lucien Lessard at the origins of the intervention’s decision, representing both sides of the complex culture of Canada.

Her committed filmmaking is not solely focused on the denunciation of cultural oppression, it also celebrates the extraordinary richness of the native peoples’ culture (Mère de tant d’enfants, 1977, depicts the profiles of different native women, as well as the historical and cultural importance of matriarchy in native peoples’ cultures) but also addresses the terrible suffering of native Americans, a consequence of their alleged position in modern society, and a distress notably expressed through the worrying high rate of suicide among teenagers (Richard Cardinal : le cri d’un enfant métis / Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child8, 1986). Her work allows to cast an acutely conscious gaze on issues largely under-addressed in mainstream circuits of information. Her films raise awareness without erasing the voice of the native communities, but they also open discussions for anyone who wants to join in regardless of their origins because these are tensions that transcend race. I am convinced that watching her films is a duty for all.

 

While possessing a long and fruitful career, Alanis Obomsawin is now of an advanced age. However, she keeps working on several projects as there will always be an issue to address. One of her latest productions to date focuses on the story of Cindy Blackstock, a First Nations activist who sued the federal government of Canada for underfunding social services to children of the First Nations reserves (On ne peut pas faire deux fois la même erreur / We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, 2016).

Alanis Obomsawin works to preserve a legacy for upcoming generations through the acknowledgement of social, cultural and political tensions and the celebration of the diversity and uniqueness of the native peoples’ culture. She, too, works for better future by embracing and cherishing her own uniqueness and even though she is celebrated by both critics and audiences in Canada, I hope she will obtain a more consequent international recognition during her lifetime. Indeed, her career is far too overlooked by most audiences whereas her films should urgently be watched, understood and discussed in the greatest numbers, particularly considering present circumstances.

 

There are many other female artists and activists are worth writing about.This approach on the topic is a personal one and I felt it would be an appropriate occasion to write about the impressive careers of these two women at a time when it is still quite a challenge to achieve a secured professional situation when belonging to ‘’the fairer sex’’ and / or a minority group. Individuals like Josephine Baker and Alanis Obomsawin will still face adversity so long as western society fails to correct its myriad social ills, that is to say discriminating against a part of the population regarding their biological gender and their origins. That is why their work should be shared and debated as widely as possible to shed light on what these artists denounce and also what they had to face on a personal level, discussing their experience as artists and as women. Sadly, their discourses remain largely non-dominant within the global media and artistic fields and that is why we should work to unpack them and promote them, as well as many others, in order to propose alternative voices to a mainly white and masculine vision of the world.

 

1.  Baker J., Koger G. & Varna H. (lyrics), Scotto V. (music) (1930) J’ai deux amours. Paris: Paris qui remue (Henri Varna, Léo Lelièvre and Earl Leslie).
2.  Read Joséphine Baker contre Hitler, La star noire de la France libre by Charles Onana (2006, éditions Duboiris). Find the summary of the book in the English press release available here: http://www.editionsduboiris.com/files/1173571545.pdf
3.  Read her correspondance with Martin Luther King on kingcenter.org http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-josephine-baker-mlk# and her speech at the March on Washington (1963) on blackpast.org http://www.blackpast.org/1963-josephine-baker-speech-march-washington
4.  Full film available on archive.org (91 minutes, French with English subtitles) https://archive.org/details/ZouZou-josephineBaker1934
5.  Read Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies a collection of essays and interviews by Bell Hooks (1996, Routledge).
6.  https://www.nfb.ca/
7.  Full film available on the ONF/NFB platform (46 minutes, English) https://www.nfb.ca/film/incident_at_restigouche/
8.  Full film available on the ONF/NFB platform (29 minutes, English) Warning for graphic images. https://www.nfb.ca/film/richard_cardinal/

 

Words by Leslie de Oliveira

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