By Ashley Benkarski
James Baldwin. Josephine Baker. Richard Wright.
These are a few of the names featured in Alan Govenar’s documentary “Myth of a Colorblind France” which explores the exodus of African Americans to the French capital city in the late 19th century.
The journey began when African American soldiers in the First World War wrote letters to the Black press back home proclaiming Paris to be unmired in the racism that permeated American society. They spoke of being welcomed as heroes, mostly exempt from discrimination and hatred, in a “colorblind” France. That they served their country in war made no difference to those who benefitted from their sacrifice. They were not welcomed home.
The film explores the contrast between the two societies, evident through a reverence for Black art and artists, perhaps most notably Josephine Baker. An entertainer known for her exhibition of sexuality and her talents at various forms of acting and dance, Baker was the face of the French zeitgeist. She was memorialized in song, sculpture, poetry and consumer products, —if it had her face on it, it drew the public.
This isn’t to say that racism was not and is not present in Paris— it just has a different origin with the colonial and post-colonial history of the country that heavily relied on a slave economy. For Black citizens and people of color in the country with roots in Africa or the Caribbean, the treatment can become confrontational the moment it’s realized they aren’t American. And like America, there are issues with police brutality and racial profiling, explored in the film through the eyes of contemporary artists that provide a compelling testimony begging the question, just how “colorblind” is Paris anyway?
From Victor Sejour, an African American intellectual who created the earliest known work of fiction by a Creole author, to the infamous James Baldwin, Govenar’s film introduces us to the stories of Black expatriates, past and present. It brings to the fore the legacy of African American artists and scholars that shaped an entire country’s social culture while examining the racism that haunts its streets today.
“Myth of a Colorblind France” is distributed by First Run Features. Discover the inspiring stories of these legendary Black pioneers by streaming the video online at http://www.mythofacolorblindfrance.com/where-to-watch.html.