Thursday, February 22, 2007


In The Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker plays Papitou, a childlike and impulsive Caribbean native. The first half of the film is set in the Antilles where Papitou becomes devoted to Andre, a French engineer. The second half is set in Paris where Papitou sets out to find Andre, and during the course of her adventures, she becomes a celebrated dancer.

The plot is a melodrama of little interest - the movie is a vehicle for Josephine Baker. With the exception of a couple of regrettably overacted dramatic scenes and an ill-fitting comic bit in the middle, Baker shows off her considerable natural appeal in her film debut. She somehow manages to be naive and sophisticated, primitive and modern, playful and sensual all at the same time.


Josephine Baker was a performer at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-20s. She was an innovative dancer that helped popularize Jazz Dance, particularly the Charleston, the dance most associated with the era. Although black culture and art was flourishing in Harlem, racism was peaking in other parts of the nation. The popularity of the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak in 1927; Alabama had elected a Governor and a Senator who were Klan members.

By this time, Baker had relocated to France where she was a sensation as an erotic dancer.


A black woman dancing half-naked in a banana skirt today would not be considered progressive, but Baker's reputation is untarnished; her brash sexuality comes across as more liberating than degrading. Her involvement with the French Underground resisting Nazi occupation during WWII and her involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement assure that history will always see her as an inspirational figure.

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