Ruth Negga will star as Josephine Baker in a new limited series

Leena Kim
·3-min read
Photo credit: Hulton Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hulton Archive - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

There is hardly a shortage of famous figures born of the Roaring Twenties (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey, Ernest Hemingway, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, the list goes on), all of whom left indelible marks on art, culture, fashion, music and literature. But perhaps few of these towering greats took on such a multi-hyphenate role as Josephine Baker. The legendary entertainer wasn't simply a celebrated dancer and style star — she was a spy for the French Resistance during World War II and later, an American civil rights activist.

Now, the trailblazing icon is getting her due tribute with a new limited series currently in development at ABC Signature, in partnership with The SpringHill Company, an entertainment brand co-founded by basketball star LeBron James. Ruth Negga, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in 2016's Loving, will executive produce and star in the drama. Written by Dee Harris-Lawrence (David Makes Man) and directed by Millicent Shelton (30 Rock), Josephine promises not to be a sugarcoated portrayal, but rather a raw and nuanced look at Baker's life and career.

Photo credit: Tristan Fewings - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tristan Fewings - Getty Images

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker got her break performing in the chorus lines of vaudeville shows in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, at age 19, she set sail for Paris, where her career would really take off. "No, I didn't get my first break on Broadway," Baker told The Guardian in 1974. "I became famous first in France in the twenties." A year later, she was headlining at the Folies Bergère and would soon become one of the most famous and sought-after performers in Europe. In 1927, she became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, Siren of the Tropics, and by 1931 she had recorded her most famous song, J'ai deux amours. And then of course there was her iconic sartorial contribution to the Jazz Age: the banana skirt.

When World War II broke out in 1939, Baker joined French Resistance efforts, using her celebrity to attend parties, charm enemy officials, and gather information about troop locations, writing notes in invisible ink on her sheet music and pinning them inside her underwear (her high profile status allowed Baker to avoid strip searches). When the Germans invaded France, Baker retreated to her home in the country and housed members of the Charles de Gaulle-led Free France effort. At the end of the war, she received a Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, France's highest order of merit.

Photo credit: Hulton Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hulton Archive - Getty Images

In the fifties, Baker was a hero across the pond, becoming a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. She vehemently denounced racism in the US and refused to perform for segregated audiences. In 1963, Baker spoke at the March on Washington. "I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad," she famously said. So great was Baker's influence in America that after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, his widow Coretta asked Baker if she would take over as leader of the Civil Rights Movement (she declined).

Photo credit: Francis Miller
Photo credit: Francis Miller

While Josephine is hardly the first on-screen depiction of the entertainer and activist — The Josephine Baker Story, a 1991 TV film that aired on HBO earned its star, Lynn Whitfield, an Emmy, and Baker has also inspired minor characters in Midnight in Paris, Anastasia, and Lovecraft Country — it may well be the most comprehensive, and perhaps a long-overdue celebration of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

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