Studiocanal, the leading European production, distribution and international sales powerhouse, is teaming with France’s CPB Films (“Savages”) and Leyland Films (“Murder in Provence”) to develop a high-end English-language drama series about the trailblazing African American entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker, whom the partners describe as the world’s first Black global star performer.
Studiocanal, part of Vivendi’s Canal Plus Group, will handle international distribution rights to the as yet untitled drama series.
The venture comes with the approval and full support of Baker’s family, said Jean-Claude Bouillon Baker, one of Baker’s foster children who wrote a book about his mother. Bouillon-Baker is also consulting on the series.
A Baker bioseries can draw on what Studiocanal CEO Anna Marsh describes as a “multi-faceted, brilliant life story.” Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1905, initially performing in vaudeville before moving to the chorus lines of two big Broadway revues, 1921’s “Shuffle Along” and 1924’s “The Chocolate Dandies.”
Married twice by the age of 15, she got her big break after she moved to France, proving to be a sensation when she appeared on stage at the legendary Paris cabaret Folies Bergère in 1926, singing and dancing dressed in a short skirt of artificial bananas, a beaded necklace, sandals and nothing else.
Accompanied on stage in later performances by her pet cheetah, Baker quickly become an icon of female sexual liberty in the jazz age in Paris, a city which was by then Europe’s cultural capital, home to Ernest Hemingway, a friend of Baker’s, and Picasso, who sketched her.
Her act was most probably Folies Bergère’s defining glory. Baker herself proved, however, to be much more than an exotic dancer. Refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the U.S., she worked as a secret agent for the French Resistance during WWII, then supported Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement, speaking at his side during his 1963 march on Washington. She also adopted 12 children of different races and religions.
Black singers from Shirley Bassey to Beyoncé have cited Baker’s influence or channeled her stage acts.
“She was a great artist and performer but also somebody who knew that she could leverage her fame and audiences for causes bigger than just her own career, which is very rare, and these causes — feminism, gender and racial equality — are obviously still relevant today,” said CFB Films Marco Cherqui, who was also a producer on Jacques Audiard’s Academy Award-nominated “A Prophet.”
“Josephine Baker was a totally modern woman who helped other Black performers, bringing them to France, where they discovered a far larger freedom,” added Jerôme Vignac, head of Leyland Films, which has a close relationship to the Baker family.
Top management at French pay TV giant Canal Plus is involved in and excited about the series, said Françoise Guyonnet, Studiocanal executive managing director for TV series. A formal decision as to whether Canal Plus joins the project as a core backer will be taken later in the development process, however.
The project is currently out to different screenwriters for them to present a vision for the series that Cherqui and Vignac promise will be “an ambitious and creatively inspiring TV series” and “not too much of a classic biopic.” “Once we have a writer or showrunner who brings something bold and original to the table, which also matches our ideas and research, we will be able to see how we get the series developed,” Guyonnet added.
According to a written statement on Thursday, “negotiations with leading firms” are currently underway to attach additional international partners to the project.
CPB’s production credits include “Slavery Routes,” a critically-acclaimed documentary series about the slave trade from the 7th to the 20th century.
(Pictured: [Top] Josephine Baker; [Bottom] Baker performing at the Folies Bergère, some time between 1925 and 1930)