"We can make all our dreams come true, but first we have to decide to awaken from them."
Siren of the Tropics (La Sirène des Tropiques)
[this post is part of Goatdog's 1927 Blog-a-thon]
In Siren of the Tropics (1927), Josephine Baker’s character, Papitou, is by no means a siren. The title comes straight from a marquee at the Folies Bergères; maybe it’s just ironic. Josephine doesn’t sing, and she doesn’t effortlessly (or even calculatedly) attract the man she loves, though she does attract just about everybody else in the Parisian dance hall where she performs the Charleston. It's hard to imagine her dancing didn't cause riots, even in Paris, even in the 20s.
It’s 1927 and you can’t expect this movie not to be racist. But still -- I want to love the freedom that Josephine embodies here. I might have to read it against the grain to do it, but I want to read this as a feminist film. The Marquis de Sévéro is a murderous, incestuous scoundrel who wants a divorce so he can marry his god-daughter. His wife manages his business enterprises with a troop of female employees. The marquis sends his god-daughter’s fiance, Berval, off to prospect his claims in the Antilles, with a message telling his foreman, Alvarez, to make sure Berval doesn't come back alive. Meanwhile, in the tropics, Alvarez is attempting to assault Papitou, who -- at least in the English intertitles, which look like they’re of recent vintage -- despite her enormous resourcefulness, has not managed to prevail upon her European father to teach her proper grammar. (I guess she needs a white father to explain her light skin -- otherwise maybe it would be too threatening -- but she needs to be a savage for the economy of the plot. Well, maybe. Actually the only savages are the white male characters in the film.)
What she does know how to do is use her body. In a movie in which every other female pair of legs is fused from the knee up -- if not the ankle -- her legs hinge at the hip. Papitou is vibrantly athletic in her movements. She moves with exaggerated gestures, big steps, wide arms, jerky hips, but behind that “savage” freedom is a dancer’s incredible discipline; behind the wide eyes and pout is an actress who knows what she’s doing. Yes, she uses her exaggerated gestures to show off her crotch to the viewer, repeatedly, even as Alvarez is trying to rape her. This is where I’m most uncomfortable. The movie’s visual logic is inviting you to think of her as fuckable -- rapable. Even if on the surface you’re told you can look but not touch -- “Papitou good girl” -- it’s race that makes it possible for her to be presented as so available to sexual violence.
And yet, and yet. A typical film narrative would put her into danger only to have Our Hero rescue her, thus demonstrating that women need good men to save them from bad men. Only here there are no good men (Sévéro is evil incarnate; Alvarez is casually horrible; Berval is a pasty incompetent; the dancehall promoters are irrelevant), and Josephine Baker doesn’t need to be saved. She’s always saving herself. Every time the plot advances it’s her actions that do it. The one time she doesn’t manage to save herself is the time she allows herself to be rescued, from Alvarez, by Berval. Actually, Berval can’t rescue himself from a paper bag, as he reveals when Alvarez does his worst; remembering his kindness, Papitou races off for help, leaving a woozy Berval in the woods. He picks himself up and stumbles toward the mine where Alvarez is skimming his own riches off the top of the owner’s takings. You think he’s going to turn heroic and single-handedly capture the evildoer, but no; a brigade of mounted police (apparently called in by Papitou) is required to accomplish that task. Later, when Berval is again menaced by Sévéro, it’s again Papitou who saves him, in an even more dramatic and autonomous fashion.
But in the meantime, she has to follow him to France. When she doesn’t have the money to get on a steamer, she jumps in the water and swims to catch up with it and sneak on board. Still wet from her swim she lands in a pile of coal and finds herself in inadvertent blackface. An alarmed European lady, seeing her, cries for help, saying, “it’s easy to find her, she’s all black.” Papitou hides in a bin of flour and thus finds herself in inadvertent whiteface -- thwarting her pursuers because her color can’t be pinned down, which is, it seems, the point about Josephine.
It’s a voodoo kind of whiteface, though, and maybe it’s with that magic that she manages to get the prissy Europeans moving like she does. Swarming to find this interloper, on the ship, European women end up sticking their asses in the air as they literally follow in her footsteps. As if to underline this point about the communicability of her physical style, soon after she’s got a gig teaching European children to dance in her “jungle” way, on her way toward entrancing mass audiences.
And that she has to “sacrifice” her man in the end doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice; after all, he's the pasty incompetent, whose only virtue is not being bad. She doesn't sacrifice the man, maybe, but the story line -- the one that says she needs him so very much. Maybe it’s just my fantasy. But in the end, she’s alone, on stage. In the year that Isadora Duncan died, here’s another great modernist, enjoying what a strong and independent woman can do with her body.
P.S. Josephine Baker refused to perform in segregated venues. In 1963, she was the only female speaker at the March on Washington organized by Martin Luther King. The title quote is from her.