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HBO’s Black Women Artist Biopics: The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

Les biopics de HBO sur les artistes noires américaines : The Josephine Baker Story et Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
Hélène Charlery

Abstracts

This paper analyses cable television HBO’s 1990s biopics based on the life stories of the African American dancer and singer Josephine Baker (The Josephine Baker Story, Brian Gibson, 1991) and the actress Dorothy Dandridge (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Martha Coolidge, 1999), demonstrating that the films articulate the network’s commercial strategy, using the life stories of African American icons to tap into a niche market. While pointing at the artists’ personal struggles, the biopics enhance the narrative power of the female voices, and yet frame them within the controlling power of white male characters. Both films deviate from the victimizing approach that often prevails in female biopics and testify to innovative narrative methods.

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  • 1 bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies, London and New York: Routledge, (...)
  • 2 Ibidem, 112.
  • 3 Jaap Kooijman, “Triumphant: Black Pop Divas on the Wide Screen: Lady Sings the Blues and Tin (...)

1Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972) and What’s Love Got to Do With It (Brian Gibson, 1993), respectively devoted to the blues singer Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) and to the music icon Tina Turner (Angela Bassett), are some of the few biopics relating the lives of black female artists. These two women artists’ biopics characteristically center on the victimization of their subjects, relegating the construction of their careers and success to the background. American critic bell hooks contends that What’s Love Got to Do With It foregrounds the protagonists’ conjugal relationships and downplays Tina Turner’s career as a duet partner or as a single singer: “It’s so interesting how the film stops with Ike’s brutality, as though it is Tina Turner’s life ending. Why is it that her success is less interesting than the period of her life when she’s a victim?”1 Similarly, although media studies scholar Jaap Kooijman sees Lady Sings the Blues as “a black female triumph” more than “a black female tragedy”,2 he observes that the biopic addresses “Holiday’s struggle with her drug addiction” rather than the singer’s musical career and talent.3

  • 4 Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives are they Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, Ne (...)

2Lady Sings the Blues and What’s Love Got to Do With It tone down the valuable creative and political contributions of these black female artists to American society and culture by diverting the viewers’ attention onto the dramatization of their private life stories. They seemingly conform to a narrative structure which Dennis Bingham dubs the “victimology-fetish female biopic”4:

  • 5 Ibidem, 213-214.

[F]emale biopics often find suffering (and therefore) drama in a public woman’s very inability to make her decisions and discover her own destiny. […] The genre of woman’s biography, in film and literature alike, is infamous for displacing public ambition and achievement onto male partners, managers, and/or husbands, […] for focusing on women more famous for suffering and victimization than anything […] they accomplished or produced.5

  • 6 Al Auster, “HBO’s Approach to Generic Transformation”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G (...)
  • 7 Dean J. DeFino, The HBO Effect, New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 63.
  • 8 Beatriz Oria, Talking Dirty on Sex: Romance, Intimacy and Friendship, Lanham, MD, and Plymou (...)
  • 9 Donald Bogle, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Television Network, New York: Farrar, St (...)
  • 10 Donald Bogle, op. cit., 458.

3Television networks seem to be more daring when portraying black women’s lives. Between 1978 to 2015, ten television-produced biopics focused upon the life of renowned black women – including the abolitionist Harriet Tubman (A Woman Called Moses, 1978), the poet, author and womanist Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1979), a teacher (The Marva Collins Story, 1981), civil rights activists (The Rosa Parks Story, Julie Dash, 2002; Betty and Coretta, Yves Simoneau, 2013), and singers (Crazy Sexy Cool : The TLC Story, 2013 ; Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B, 2014, Bessie, Dee Rees, 2015). Produced by the subscription cable network HBO (Home Box Office), The Josephine Baker Story (Brian Gibson, 1991) and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (Martha Coolidge, 1999) are original features about “the history, lives, and problems of marginal and oppressed groups”.6 HBO has set up a distinct competitive programming strategy7 by taking risks to “give viewers something they [could not] see on regular television” or in movie theatres.8 The Josephine Baker Story responds to the demand expressed by African American viewers for “alternative films that the [other] networks never touch”.9 In 1999, the cable network also agreed to produce Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, “a drama the major networks had shown no interest in”.10

  • 11 Al Auster, op. cit., 226-246.

4While HBO has undoubtedly championed generic transformations and innovations,11 The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge offer mixed interpretations of their heroines’ life stories. A close analysis of the two biopics reveals that the films question the representations of gender and race through the construction of the women’s screen image. However, the narratives enhance the gendered roles of these black women artists as wives or partners and downplay their political voices as agents of social, cultural or political change. Considering that biopics have established a trend of their own, it is worth pondering the specific narrative strategies used to commemorate the artistic lives of J. Baker and D. Dandridge.

Whose stories are they anyway?

  • 12 Carolyn Anderson and John Lupo, “Hollywood Lives: The State of the Biopic at the T (...)

5The openings of biopics are revelatory of the angle through which their protagonists’ lives are to be narrated: Lady Sings the Blues unfolds on Billie Holiday’s arrest for drug abuse in New York in 1936. Paced by a macabre musical piece, the stream of black and white photographs portrays a black woman with undone hair, a crazed look in her eyes, surrounded by wardens. The camera then lingers on the semi-conscious character, lying on the floor of an isolated room, wrapped into a straightjacket. This is when the zoom-in on the crazed face fades into a flashback of Billie Holiday’s childhood, to relate the traumatic episode that will be haunting the entire biopic – her rape as a child. Editing brings together the character’s drug addiction and the traumatic event of her childhood, thereby tying a causative structure and a psychological approach to Billie Holiday’s personal life story. Interestingly, the opening sequence foreshadows the woman artist’s personal struggle as the biopic’s “nodal dramatic action”.12 Similarly, the opening sequence of What’s Love Got to Do With It frames the biopic into a psychological narrative as the film starts on the childhood trauma that seems to justify Tina Turner’s dependence on her brutal husband. The first images show a talented young Ana Mae Bullock (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly) being thrown out of a church choir for her unconventional voice and singing. The camera follows the child who walks home and then lingers, during a close-up shot, on the child’s pain as she sees her mother leaving home with her sister, abandoning the young Ana Mae to the care of her grandmother. The two films’ causative articulation frames the main characters into early circles of victimization, which invites the audiences to concentrate on the ways they will overcome trauma, thus leaving aside the real-life singers’ creative and political contributions.

6The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge seek to move their central characters away from the narrative process of character victimization. The opening of The Josephine Baker Story sets up the historical context with a fictional newscast: Josephine Baker (Lynn Whitfield) is performing her famous “banana dance”, whereas the following news report provides a short biography of the famous dancer:

News has reached Paris this morning that Josephine Baker is on the verge of bankruptcy. Adored in Paris, but banned in her native America, she was once the richest black woman who ever lived. Her years of fortune began in the 1920s with her scandalous banana dance. But now her château in Southern France is in danger of being taken away from her.

7The sequence insists on the downfall story by contrasting Baker’s fame and fortune (“the richest black woman who ever lived”) with her financial situation in 1969 (“penniless”), epitomized by the upcoming seizure of Les Milandes, her castle in Southern France, or her waning popularity (“I don’t care about her philosophy. All I know is that she hasn’t paid one bill in seven months”, 00:02:28). The film’s opening sequence frames Baker both as the subject and the object of this downfall narrative.

8However, Josephine Baker locks herself up in her castle in order to write a letter to her twelve adopted children in the following sequence. The camera shows an older Baker sitting at her desk and speaking in voice-over:

My dearest children, […] by now, you’re in Paris, hearing stories about my scandalous past and my crazy ideas, and I must set the record straight. I’ve got slave and Indian blood, which I always claimed made me more American than most people who call themselves that. So what am I doing here? So far from where I began. [00:03:18]

9The scene fictionalizes the construction of the authorial voice of the film’s subject, turning Baker into the narrator of her own life story; the first-person voice-over introduction justifies the purpose and moral significance of the narrative (“I must set the record straight”), the place where it is told (“So what am I doing here?”) and the moments when it begins and ends. As film scholar Bennetta Jules-Rosette remarks:

  • 13 Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image, Urbana an (...)

This approach allows Baker’s character to use two narrative voices: first person, to experience the events in past and present, and third person, to editorialize about the events and provide a moralistic and interpretative commentary on what has taken place.13

10Baker’s voice-over introduction counterpoints the biographical angle of the opening to challenge the dominant view through which her story is told. The life narrative about to be told neither focuses on her bankruptcy, nor on the “stories about [her] scandalous past and [her] crazy ideas”, but concentrates instead on the racial discrimination Baker endured and which led her to migrate from the United States to the South of France (“So what am I doing here? So far from where I began”). The camera dwells on a musing character, and editing immediately cuts to the images of an 11-year-old Josephine running through the streets of East Saint-Louis during the race riots that erupted in May 1917:

When I was trying to grow up, white folks had no heart and black folks had no power. All the black girl had was a hard way to go. […] I started running when I was just a little bit of thing in East Saint-Louis on a Tuesday morning 1917. Thirty-nine black people had died that day. […] There and then, I swore that if I grew up, I’d make sure little children didn’t have to live scared…ever. [00:04:03-00:05:35]

  • 14 Ibidem, 115.

11While the film depicts a child’s trauma, it is framed within the wider collective history of racial violence in the first half of 20th-century America, the leitmotiv through which Baker’s biopic is told.14

  • 15 According to Donald Bogle, “[the] drama earnestly attempted to reveal the racism Dandridge (...)

12The black woman’s experience of racism in the song and film industry is central to Martha Coolidge’s biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,15 which starts, quite similarly, with the comments of an authorial voice-over. Dandridge’s narrating voice resonates over a black screen: “Have you ever caught sight of yourself by accident and you see yourself from the outside? That’s who you really are” [00:00:54]. The voice-over introduction summarizes the film project as it was originally conceived by Halle Berry, one of the producers who presented the endeavor as follows:

  • 16 “Dorothy Dandridge: Who Should Play The Tragic Star?”, Ebony, vol. 52, n° 10, Augu (...)

For me, the paradox that makes Dorothy such a fascinating character is that she was a pioneer who possessed incredible inner strength to achieve, but ultimately the industry did not know what to do with her. Personal tragedies can often overshadow professional triumph.16

13The title of the film further reflects Halle Berry’s goal in fictionalizing the actress’s life, as she wished to introduce the black actress for the contemporary audiences, not necessarily aware of Dandridge’s historical legacy as the first African American woman nominated for an Academy Award for best leading actress.

  • 17 Geraldine “Geri” Branton, Dorothy Dandridge’s friend and former sister-in-law.

14As the first images of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge fade in, the viewers see the cover of the 1954 issue of Life magazine, featuring Dandridge dressed as Carmen Jones. Like The Josephine Baker Story and its visual representation of the banana dance, the Dandridge biopic foregrounds what the real-life actress is still famous for: her performance in Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954). Both artists are introduced as objects of gaze, but the swift intervention of a voice-over allows them to exist also as the subjects and narrators of their own lives. The opening sequence of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge interweaves two narrative strands: the image track follows the actress’s preparation for the 1940 Oscar Ceremony, while the voice-over comments on the action. In fact, two Dandridge characters seem to collide on screen: the one who is getting ready for the Oscar Ceremony and the narrating subject, a sleepless Dandridge who is talking to her friend Geri17 on the phone and who insists on being left alone (“No, Geri. Girl, I’m not talking crazy. I don’t need you to come over, OK? I just need you to stay on the phone. I can’t sleep and I wanna talk”, 00:01:33). Right from the start, the film intertwines Dandridge’s professional triumph and personal drama.

15The biopic’s opening sequence engages racial discourses by exposing the discriminations the actress endured on an everyday basis. As previously mentioned, the first image of Dorothy Dandridge corresponds to her photograph on the cover of Life Magazine, the pages of which the hotel concierge is reading. Absorbed in the pages of the magazine, he mistakes the black actress for a maid and hands her the dress she is “supposed to pick up”. His reply “Your lady must have paid” bespeaks the race and class relationship he unquestioningly replicates. Dressed up for the ceremony and about to leave the hotel, Dandridge drops her room keys on the front desk and ironically retorts: “My lady’s going out for the evening” [00:02:04]. Her ceremonial gown and authoritative tone immediately change the look cast on her by the male concierge.

  • 18 Carolyn Anderson and John Lupo, op. cit., 91-104.

16The two HBO films thus “characterize” the women as subjects and narrators of their own stories, deviating from the victimizing and psychological approach used in the biopics on Tina Turner and Billie Holiday. Most importantly, both openings hint at the racial constraints that guided some of these women artists’ decisions. Developing their life stories within the context of past forms of racism, HBO’s black female biopics are representative of what Anderson and Lupo call “modern biopics”, such as Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) and Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), which convey a political message through a “rich social context”.18 In The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, this racial context is enriched with a gendered discourse that allows both films to address, self-reflexively, the visual construction of black female bodies by the white male gaze.

The visual construction of black female bodies

  • 19 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze”, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: (...)

17Reconstructing Josephine Baker’s screen career permits Brian Gibson to question the politics of representation in Hollywood. When her second husband and manager, Pepito Abatino (Rubén Pladens), informs her that she has received offers to play in Hollywood movies, Baker responds that “Hollywood wants [her] to play maids” [00:13:35]. She overtly criticizes the politics of the studios which restrict the range of possible roles for black actresses, namely by reducing them to supporting characters, such as white women’s maids. Baker’s answer allows the filmmaker to self-reflexively address what bell hooks calls cinematic racism or “the violent erasure of black womanhood” on screen.19 The feminist critic astutely observes:

  • 20 Ibidem, 118.

With the possible exception of early race movies, black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence, that denies the ‘body’ of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white’.20

18Hooks observes that the black female audience is estranged from the visual construction of cinematic womanhood, for the black female body is either erased or made only absently present.

  • 21 When credited, Ruby Dandridge played the role of a dancer (King Kong, 1933; Broken Strings(...)
  • 22 Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role of Mam (...)
  • 23 Andi Zeisler, Feminism and Pop Culture, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008, 32.

19Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’s criticism of cinematic racism is woven into fictionalized scenes. The first date between Dandridge and her first husband, Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatundé), happens in a movie theatre where Dandridge and Nicholas are watching Corregidor (William Nigh, 1943), a war film in which her mother Ruby Dandridge plays a white woman’s maid. While the scene serves as an opportunity to pay homage to all the black actresses who played white women’s maids on screen,21 Nicholas objects to “sitting and watching some old plantation mammy” which causes the utmost pleasure of the diegetic movie theatre audience. Dandridge confesses that the actress is her own mother and provides a background story to the smiling face of the plantation mammy on screen: “She didn’t have a choice, you know, after our father left, she had to feed us, and playing a maid is world easier than being a maid” [00:09:20]. The line resonates with the now well-known sentence pronounced by the African American actress Hattie McDaniel22 when responding to criticism regarding her portrayal of racial stereotypes on screen: “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.”23

20Both The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge incorporate the racial mechanisms used to objectify the bodies of black women on screen as plotlines. Fully aware of the roles assigned to her as a thin, light-skinned black actress, a darkened Dandridge questions the politics of race in Hollywood productions when playing Queen Melmendi in Tarzan’s Peril (Byron Haskin, 1951):

Dandridge: “If [the queen of the jungle] lives here, why does she need Tarzan to help her find her way through?”
Movie director: “I want to see more skin than cloth. […] Please, keep the fucking queen of Congo quiet.” […]
Earl Mills: “What happened to your face?”
Dandridge: “I guess I was not black enough to lead the jungle.”

  • 24 Montré Aza Missouri, Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex and Afro-Religiosity, (...)

21The scene and its dialogue illustrate how the black female body is framed into a curious “hypervisibility”, one that creates “a sexualized and racialized ‘other’” on screen.24 The two HBO biopics interestingly discuss visual constructions of black womanhood, and show how the two characters cope with them, eventually yielding to the objectification of their bodies by a white male gaze.

22When film director Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) rushes to Dandridge’s house to try and convince her to be cast as Carmen Jones, Dandridge indeed yields to his offer:

Dandridge: “What if they don’t like me?”
Preminger: “They will love you. I will make them love you. […] This is what I can do. […] My gift is to bring the beauty to the world. I know women. I know how to light them, to shoot them, to create them for the screen. And if you let me, I will seduce the audience for you. I will make sure they never forget the name Dorothy Dandridge.” [00:56:50]

23Although Dandridge resents the construction of herself as a sexualized and racialized ‘Other’, she does not challenge Preminger’s invitation to objectify her womanhood on screen. The following sequence literally recreates, frame by frame and line by line, Dandridge’s iconic performance of “Dat’s Love” in the cafeteria scene in Carmen Jones [01:00:33]. Visual emphasis is placed on the male gazes of the diegetic technicians and, most importantly, of film director Otto Preminger and Dandridge’s manager Earl Mills, thereby demonstrating that the representation of the racialized female Other is a product of the male gaze. This reification of womanhood is later reinforced by Dandridge’s acceptance of a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox [01:06:45], requesting her to comply with Daryl Zanuck’s idea to “smooth her race out” in a remake of The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) “with a Negro girl”. In other words, the film deconstructs the reifying process underlying the representation of black womanhood on screen: the woman may refuse her own objectification, but she cannot escape the reifying power of the white male gaze.

24The Josephine Baker Story uses a similar process by dramatizing the moment when black jazz musician Sydney Bechet (Kene Holiday) and French artist Paul Colin (Pierre Magny) convince Baker to perform the “one danse [that] had made [her] the most talked-about woman in the world”. The reluctant dancer first objects to showing her “prim-a-teev [and] essential ass” [00:11:46] on stage, but Bechet explains the “capricious child-woman” that her blackness is an asset in France:

All they want is that sweet ass of yours. […] You want to go back to five shows a day on the chitlin’ circuit? Lookin’ for lodging in places that don’t say ‘No dogs, no Jews, no niggers? Look Josie, you and your sweet ass have got ’em right here. […] And don’t it feel good. Ain’t you a long way from East St. Louis? [00:11:42-00:12:32].

  • 25 Brett A. Berliner, Ambivalent Desire: The Exotic Black Other in Jazz-age France, Amherst: (...)

25Baker’s bitter reaction to the hypervisibility and quasi-nudity imposed on her black body and Bechet’s remark (“you and your sweet ass”) express their awareness that “the French [also] understood and imagined the black, the nègre, largely in terms of spectacle”.25 The introduction of newspaper clips of her stage performance as “La Venus Nègre” [00:17:54] conveys the fascination that she aroused as the “exotic Other” invited to perform a danse sauvage in feathers on stage in Paris.

26The following sequence fictionalizes how Baker finally yields to the white male gaze and to its construction of her “racialized and sexualized” body into a primitive image. In front of a mirror, the white French artist Paul Colin is explaining a giggling, topless Josephine that he wants to see her black naked body as “érotique, cruelle, sauvage, infantine, dangereuse”. His words denote the primitive essentialism through which blackness is perceived in France. The flattered, giggling woman strikes a pose that reveals Baker’s complicit attitude with the commodification and instrumentalization of her black female body, as she is taking part in the (re)creation of the stereotype of the exotic primitive.

27At that precise moment, Josephine Baker’s voice-over conspicuously returns to provide the following commentary on the French painter’s perception of her body as a racialized object of the gaze:

His eyes approved of me. To him, I wasn’t just a woman or a colored woman. I was all women. Nobody’s ever looked at me that way before. Never before. [00:13:35]
There she was. She’d been there all the time. I’d been too busy making faces so folks would like me. I’d never seen her. There she was. [00:16:11]

28The “faces” and “folks” alluded to by the voice-over evoke the character’s earlier Broadway career when “still in blackface, [she was] dancing to all-white audiences” [00:06:56]. Reduced to “making faces” to entertain white audiences in segregated America, the woman is compelled to dance naked in racist France. The voice-over reveals Baker’s internal conflict as she retrospectively realizes the double bind placed on her: complying with the racist construction of gendered blackness during her early career America, she now gives in to the essentialist fascination of the cabaret audiences with the black body in France. Through the repetition of “There she was”, and the images of Baker turning into the Black Venus she is learning to see as herself, the scene underlines her awareness of racial constructs as well as her unconscious internalization of them. The following sequence, a series of slow motion images of Baker’s danse sauvage, shows her performing the desirable exotic female Other on stage in France. Bechet’s accommodationist strategy is depicted as key to her success.

29Both films unquestionably highlight the visual construction of black womanhood, either through its absence or its hypervisibility. Interestingly, the two black female characters eventually yield to processes of objectification that involve inclusive womanhood (Otto Preminger’s “I know women” and the “all women” in Baker’s commentary), yet without realizing that images instantly trap them into stereotypes of black womanhood. The films downplay their critical edges by pointing out the unconscious participation of both characters in the instrumentalization of their bodies, ambiguously replicating the narrative and visual strategies behind the commodification of black female bodies. The two biographical films eventually compromise the black women’s voices by depicting white male figures as the architects of their fame, returning to the narrative trope of Bingham’s “victimology-fetish female biopic”.

Private lives, public lives and historical legacy

  • 26 Bennetta Jules-Rosette, op. cit., 113, 115.
  • 27 Ibidem, 115.

30Analyzing the representations of Josephine Baker in art and film, Bennetta Jules-Rosette argues that Brian Gibson’s biopic is replete with “male-advice” sequences, where “[m]ale figures are repeatedly used to introduce balance, planning, and the voice of calculated reason to Baker, whose initial reactions are portrayed as impetuous and emotional”.26 While Josephine Baker’s danse sauvage demonstrates her professional talent as a dancer during her performances for American soldiers in North Africa, her involvement in social and political causes is directly attributed to the long series of men she encountered in her life, whether as future or potential husbands, friends or managers. This assuredly diminishes her agency in life-changing decisions.27

31Jules-Rosette has furthermore underscored that the film ties some of the central protagonist’s decisions up with the guilt Baker experienced after rejecting her husband, Pepito Abatino, whom she blamed for her failed return to the United States. When she sends her husband away, she does not share the audience’s awareness that Abatino is jeopardizing his health to Baker’s happiness. When Baker is eventually informed about her husband’s illness, she develops a feeling of guilt that pervades the rest of the film, which Jules-Rosette refers to as the “give something back” motif. Because the motif returns constantly whenever Baker is involved in wider collective issues, it is difficult to decide whether her determination to fight the Nazis and combat American racial segregation is narratively motivated by guilt or by political commitment. For instance, when Lieutenant Williams introduces Baker’s song of “J’ai deux amours” in one of the Liberty Clubs in North Africa, his speech resonates with the “give something back” motif: “She’s here for the same reason she stayed in France. She’s here to give something back.” As illustrated by this example, Baker’s actions are never understood as political statements and read instead as the results of a psychological condition that undermines her agency as a subject.

32On the other hand, the film deprives her of a political voice by introducing narrative intermediaries to comment on her activist stance. At one point of the biopic, white journalist and columnist Walter Winchell (Craig T. Nelson) explains during a radio report that Baker refused “to play any dates where the audience is segregated” [01:19:10]; however, she cannot be heard delivering that statement herself. Elsewhere in the film, paper headlines highlight Baker’s integrationist efforts (“Bringing the Races Together: The Baker Way”/The Color Line & how I fight it”), reducing her commitment to a few attention-grabbing headlines. The artist is heard speaking only once about her experience of racism when she addresses a full audience and tells about her childhood in America [01:20:55]; a medium close-up zooms in on her face, cutting out the audience whose presence is in the form of backdrop noise, undermining the testimonial dimension of the scene. The full audience to the character’s criticism of American racism appears in a wider shot, as Walter Winchell comments on the fictional newsreel footage of Baker’s public intervention in voice-over. A similar technique is used when Baker challenges the segregationist “rules about serving colored people” [01:52:42] in the Stork Club Restaurant in New York. Although Baker resents such rules and proudly walks out of the restaurant, she leaves it up to Winchell, a witness of the scene, to relate the episode: “Well Walter, it’s up to you now” [01:26:17]. Thus, and although the film’s introduction construed the voice of the biopic subject, the denunciation of more explicit examples of racial segregation is handled by the intradiegetic voice of a white man. And, as illustrated by the following extract, the black female character is eventually silenced by Winchell, taking advantage of his prominent place in the media to have the final word:

I want all America to hear me tonight. White America, Colored America and America that knows how many times Walter Winchell has gone to bat for better treatment of minorities of every kind. Now let’s get a few facts straight. I am appalled at the agony and embarrassment caused to Josephine Baker and her friend at the Stork Club. But I’m equally appalled at her attempts to involve me in an incident in which I had no part. Now I’m going to read you a statement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [Winchell is now looking directly at the camera] acquitting me of all charges ‘La Baker’ has been making against me [01:27:42-01:28:10].

33Baker attempts to defend herself against Winchell’s attack in the following sequence, but the pressure of the press conference leads her husband to speak for her defense, leaving a silent Baker to crumble under Winchell’s overwhelming radio voice.

34His allegations that Baker is a communist sympathizer propel her to leave the US, abandoning the film’s emphasis on the power of the white male. Baker’s answer to the male journalists, crowding around her car as she is about to leave for France, is framed in a medium close-up that visually isolates her vibrant commentary, focusing on her face. It is finally “far from where [she] began” that Baker fights for integration, turning her private life into a struggle for integration by adopting twelve children of different racial origins. Yet, at this point of the film, her commitment to an integrated family is tied to her incapacity to become a mother. The film then seems to downplay the character’s political commitment by linking Baker’s actions to more personal issues.

  • 28 Louie Robinson, “Film Star Dot Dandridge Death”, Jet, vol. 30, n° 11, June 23, 196 (...)

35At the end of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the protagonist’s clothes [00:01:33/01:45:20] indicate that the phone conversation with Geri at the beginning of the film occurred the night before she was found dead in her apartment at the age of forty-two in 1965. The enlightened spirit of the character, geared by the prospect of bringing her career back on track, discards allegations that the actress might have committed suicide with drugs. Instead, the biopic suggests that her death was “a probable accident”, supporting the results of the psychological autopsy conducted after her death.28 The ending credits reproduce the scene where Dandridge performed “I’ve Got Rhythm”, conveying the character’s efforts to use her singing and performing talent to fight racial discrimination in Las Vegas. The two sequences rehabilitate the biopic subject by reconciling her private and public lives.

  • 29 Dana Heller, “Films”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones (eds.), The Essenti (...)

36Likewise, and although The Josephine Baker Story eventually endorses the downfall narrative of “the richest black woman who ever lived”, the film concludes on the subject’s authorial voice as Baker is addressing her children during a phone conversation, commenting on her last stage performance in Europe in 1974. Significant moments of the biopic and of Josephine Baker’s public and private life are rerun over the soundtrack of “The Times They Are A Changing”, Bob Dylan's well-known 1964 song referring to the Civil Rights struggle which Baker sang and recorded alive during a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1973. The reenactment of the performance allows the filmmaker to reaffirm Josephine Baker's legacy in collective memory as one of the 20th-century cultural icons. The films’ closing sequences prompt viewers to look back at women artists and consider their lives as symbolic of collective history. Dana Heller contends that “HBO’s most notable dramatic features are those that negotiate the past and interrogate cultural memory through the depiction of individual lives that are positioned at the center of national struggles, community conflicts, social movements, and scandals”.29 The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge contribute to this effort by retrieving the artists’ voices from their images.

Conclusion

37Although they dramatize the personal lives of the two eponymous real-life black female figures, The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge rehabilitate their artistic achievements within their own time and context-related periods. Dana Heller contends that,

  • 30 Dana Heller, op. cit., 46.

Traditionally, biopics have served as propaganda and pedagogy in the shape of popular entertainment: they offer model lives for the purposes of admiration and emulation, and they communicate to us the vitally uplifting message that the times we live are better – or are getting better – thanks to the triumphs or failures of individual agents ‘embedded in a larger history that is always progressive’.30

38HBO’s 1990s biopics on black women depict their subjects as model public figures whose legacy is to foster admiration because of their roles as individual agents within black history. For popular entertainment purposes, the triumph of these public figures remains intertwined with their personal and often intimate struggles, but the latter never overcome the “larger history” these figures are framed in.

  • 31 Gregory Adamo, African American in Television: Behind the Scenes, Peter Lang: New York, 20 (...)
  • 32 Bill Mesce, Jr., Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transforme (...)
  • 33 Christina Lane, op. cit., 66.
  • 34 Bill Mesce, op. cit., 147.

39Quoting a television critic of The Los Angeles Times, Gregory Adamo observes that “[i]t’s cable where some of the boldest moves have been made when it comes to minorities in evening entertainment series”.31 At a time when Hollywood favored “big blockbusters [aimed] at young ticket buyers, especially teens”,32 HBO ventured into the “risky ‘niche’ pictures” targeting other group audiences.33 This shifted the network’s image from “a place where you brought projects nobody wanted to make [to] a place where you brought projects nobody could make”.34 One cannot deny that HBO has changed television, as Bill Mesce argues, but most importantly, the positive reception of its early biopics on black women in the 1990s provided a new visual space for black artists and actresses. The fact that Halle Berry (1999), Angela Bassett (The Rosa Parks Story, CBS, 2002; Betty and Coretta, Lifetime, 2013) and Queen Latifah (Bessie, 2015) participate in the production of films on the stories of lesser-known black women proves that it is possible to offer black women a less marginalized role in the cinematic representation and recreation of history.

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Bibliography

ADAMO Gregory, African American in Television: Behind the Scenes, New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

ALLEN Michael, “From the Earth to the Moon” in Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones (eds.), The Essential HBO Reader, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 116-124.

ANDERSON Carolyn and John LUPO, “Hollywood Lives: The State of the Biopic at the Turn of the Century” in Steve Neale (ed.), Genre and Hollywood Films, London: BFI, 2002, 91-104.

AUSTER Al, “HBO’s Approach to Generic Transformation”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G. Rose (eds.), Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, Lexington, KT: The University of Kentucky Press, 2005, 226-246.

BINGHAM Dennis, Whose Lives are they Anyway: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

BOBO Jacqueline, “Black women's responses to The Color Purple, Jump Cut, n°33, February 1988, 43-51.

BOGLE Donald, “The Three Last Days of Dorothy Dandridge”, Ebony, vol. 52, n° 10, August 1997, 52-64.

BOGLE Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Black In American Films, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1999.

BOGLE Donald, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Television Network, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

COLLIER Aldore, “Shonda Rhimes: the Force Behind Grey’s Anatomy”, Ebony, October 2005, vol. 60, n°12, 204-209.

CUSTEN George Frederick, Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

DEFINO Dean J., The HBO Effect, New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

FRIEDMAN Ryan Jay, Hollywood’s African American Films: Transition to Sound, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

FURNAM Nelly, “Screen Politics: Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones”, in Christopher Perriam and Ann Davies (eds.), Carmen Jones: from Silent to MTV, New York: Editions Rodopi, 1994, 121-134.

GAMSON Joshua, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994.

HELLER Dana, “Films”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones (eds.), The Essential HBO Reader, Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2008, 42-51.

HOOKS bell, Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

HOOKS bell, “The Oppositional Gaze”, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992, 115-131.

JACKSON Kellie Carter, “Is Viola Davis in: Black Women Actors and the ‘Single Stories’ of Historical Film”, Transition, 114, 2014, 173-184.

JULES-ROSETTE Bennetta, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

KOOIJMAN Jaap, “Triumphant: Black Pop Divas on the Wide Scree: Lady Sings the Blues and Tina: What’s Love Got To Do With Itin Ian Inglis (ed.), Popular Music and Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2003, 178-193.

KWAKIUTL Drehe L., Dancing on the White Page: Black Women Entertainers Writing Autobiography, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2008.

LANE Christina, Feminist Hollywood: From Born In Flames to Point Break, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

LETORT Delphine, “The Rosa Parks Story: The Making of a Civil Rights Icon,” Black Camera, An International Film Journal, vol. 3, n° 2, Spring 2012, 31–50.

MESCE Bill Jr., Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015.

MILLS Earl, Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Biography, Los Angeles: Holloway House Premiere Edition, 1999, 206.

MISSOURI Montré Aza, Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex and Afro-Religiosity, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2015.

NEAL Mark Anthony, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, London and New York: Routledge.

ORIA Beatriz, Talking Dirty on Sex: Romance, Intimacy and Friendship, Lanham, MD, and Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

ROBINSON Louie, “Film Star Dot Dandridge Death”, Jet, vol. 30, n° 11, June 23, 1966, 62-63.

SARRIS Andrew, “Films in Focus”, The Village Voice, November 23, 1972, vol. 17, n° 47, 77.

TASKER Yvonne, Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema, London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

ZEISLER Andi, Feminism and Pop Culture, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

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Notes

1 bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, 112.

2 Ibidem, 112.

3 Jaap Kooijman, “Triumphant: Black Pop Divas on the Wide Screen: Lady Sings the Blues and Tina: What’s Love Got To Do With It”, in Ian Inglis (ed.) Popular Music and Film, London: Wallflower Press, 2003, 178-193, 179.

4 Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives are they Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2010, 217.

5 Ibidem, 213-214.

6 Al Auster, “HBO’s Approach to Generic Transformation”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G. Rose (eds.) Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, Lexington, KT: The University of Kentucky Press, 2005, 226-246, 230. Confirmation (Rick Famuyiwa, 2016) is another biopic that centers upon Anita Hill, an African American law professor who revealed that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in the 1980s before his nomination on the Supreme Court (1991). Confirmation was aired only a year after HBO had broadcast another biopic on the African American female jazz singer Bessie Smith (Bessie, Dee Rees, 2015), thus extending the list of films focusing on renowned black women. The list of HBO biopics also includes: Tuskegee Airmen (Joseph Sargent, 1995), Don King: Only in America (John Herzfeld, 1997), and Miss Evers’ Boys (Robert Markowitz, 1997).

7 Dean J. DeFino, The HBO Effect, New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 63.

8 Beatriz Oria, Talking Dirty on Sex: Romance, Intimacy and Friendship, Lanham, MD, and Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014, 10.

9 Donald Bogle, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Television Network, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, 458.

10 Donald Bogle, op. cit., 458.

11 Al Auster, op. cit., 226-246.

12 Carolyn Anderson and John Lupo, “Hollywood Lives: The State of the Biopic at the Turn of the Century”, in Genre and Hollywood Films, London: BFI, 2002, 92.

13 Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 111.

14 Ibidem, 115.

15 According to Donald Bogle, “[the] drama earnestly attempted to reveal the racism Dandridge endured as a nightclub star, but it proved timid in attacking the racist attitudes of the movie industry, which had clearly led to the actress’s decline.” Donald Bogle, Primetime, op. cit., 458.

16 “Dorothy Dandridge: Who Should Play The Tragic Star?”, Ebony, vol. 52, n° 10, August 1997, 66-67. Here is how she explained to one of its screenwriters, Shonda Rhimes, what she aimed for: “Make Dorothy who Dorothy should be and I will do my best to become who Dorothy was.” Aldore Collier, “Shonda Rhimes: the Force Behind Grey’s Anatomy”, Ebony, October 2005, vol. 60, n° 12, 208.

17 Geraldine “Geri” Branton, Dorothy Dandridge’s friend and former sister-in-law.

18 Carolyn Anderson and John Lupo, op. cit., 91-104.

19 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze”, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992, 119.

20 Ibidem, 118.

21 When credited, Ruby Dandridge played the role of a dancer (King Kong, 1933; Broken Strings, 1940), but, in most of the 34 films she played in between the 1930s and the 1950s, she was generally cast as a maid besides leading white actresses. She was always credited simply as a maid or as a single first-name character – except in the two all-black cast films she starred in (playing Mrs. Lingley in Midnight Shadow, 1939, and Mrs. Kelso in A Cabin in the Sky, 1943).

22 Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939).

23 Andi Zeisler, Feminism and Pop Culture, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008, 32.

24 Montré Aza Missouri, Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex and Afro-Religiosity, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2015, 49.

25 Brett A. Berliner, Ambivalent Desire: The Exotic Black Other in Jazz-age France, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, 209.

26 Bennetta Jules-Rosette, op. cit., 113, 115.

27 Ibidem, 115.

28 Louie Robinson, “Film Star Dot Dandridge Death”, Jet, vol. 30, n° 11, June 23, 1966, 62-63, 62. Donald Bogle, “The Three Last Days of Dorothy Dandridge”, Ebony, vol. 52, n° 10, August 1997, 52-64, 64.

29 Dana Heller, “Films”, in Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones (eds.), The Essential HBO Reader, Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2008, 42-51, 46.

30 Dana Heller, op. cit., 46.

31 Gregory Adamo, African American in Television: Behind the Scenes, Peter Lang: New York, 2010, 91.

32 Bill Mesce, Jr., Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015, 147. Christina Lane, Feminist Hollywood: From Born In Flames to Point Break, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000, 66.

33 Christina Lane, op. cit., 66.

34 Bill Mesce, op. cit., 147.

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References

Electronic reference

Hélène Charlery, « HBO’s Black Women Artist Biopics: The Josephine Baker Story and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [Online], vol. XIV-n°2 | 2016, Online since 02 December 2016, connection on 27 June 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/8993 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.8993

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About the author

Hélène Charlery

Hélène Charlery est maître de conférences à l’Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. Ses recherches portent sur les représentations raciales et genrées, plus particulièrement sur les femmes afro-américaines, dans le cinéma contemporain.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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