Past Talks & More | Film/Video

Terri Francis

On Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism 

In conversation with Ruun Nuur 


Critic, historian, and Director of Indiana University’s Black Film Center/Archive Dr. Terri Francis joins us to discuss her new book Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism—a critical look at one of the 20th century’s most controversial, contested, and trailblazing performers—in conversation with Columbus critic and No Evil Eye cofounder Ruun Nuur.

Born in St. Louis, Josephine Baker’s unique blend of athleticism, sensuality, and comedic timing made her a vaudeville star during the Harlem Renaissance, when she was often the featured attraction of the chorus in Broadway revues. This success led to opportunities in Paris, where she became an outright stage sensation, if a notorious one, for often appearing in the skimpiest of costumes, and even nude. She eventually appeared in a series of films—including Siren of the Tropics (1927, see more below)—making her the first worldwide Black woman film star.

During World War II, Baker was enlisted by French military intelligence to use her unique position to gather information about the German military. Later, she became an important civil rights activist in the US and the only woman speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. Baker was critiqued in some quarters as embodying the most racist perceptions of her mostly white audiences, but lauded in many others as a powerful pioneer. Today, monuments to her legacy appear in St. Louis and Paris, and homages to the icon range from Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl” video (2003) to the opening of the animated film The Triplets of Belleville (2003).

Published by Indiana University Press, Francis’s book examines Baker’s multifaceted persona and indelible legacy guided by, in the author’s words, “a simple but profound ethic: treat Baker with care and seriousness as a producer of knowledge rather than merely a subject of my analysis.” Order your copy from the Wexner Center Store.

Screening as part of this presentation is Zou Zou (Marc Allégret, 1934), Josephine Baker's debut talking film. Conceived as a vehicle for Baker, the film was a huge success in France on its original release (and on its 1989 theatrical rerelease by Kino International). It's definitely Baker's show, despite the presence of Jean Gabin, who was himself on the brink of international stardom. In the tradition of 42nd Street and other Warner Bros. backstage musicals of the period, Zou Zou follows a star who walks out on her sugar daddy producer for true love and the talented Cinderella (Baker) who takes her place, saves the show, and is hailed as a new sensation opening night. In French, with English subtitles. (92 mins.)

Watch it for free May 7–13. Please note: this screening is limited to the first 300 viewers.


Black and white image of Terri Francis

Dr. Terri Francis, image courtesy of the speaker

A color photo of Ruun Nuur in a brown top and head scarf. Nuur is smiling at the camera.

Ruun Nuur, photo courtesy of the speaker

A brightly colored cover for the book Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism

Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism, image courtesy of Indiana University Press

A woman in fancy dress lounges in a chair.

Josephine Baker in Zou Zou, image courtesy of Kino Lorber

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More about the speakers

Terri Francis chevron-down chevron-up

Dr. Terri Francis is the director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University in Bloomington and associate professor at the university’s The Media School. Established in 1981, the Black Film Center/Archive is the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about Black people. Francis was recently a guest speaker at our all-virtual edition of Cinema Revival and in conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib about his recent book A Little Devil in America. Read more.

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Terri Francis