Film & TV

Josephine Baker's Silent Film Siren of the Tropics Comes Alive at Coral Gables Art Cinema

Josephine Baker stars in the 1927 film Siren of the Tropics.
Josephine Baker stars in the 1927 film Siren of the Tropics. Photo courtesy of Dranoff 2 Piano
Silent cinema and live music collide at Coral Gables Art Cinema with a screening of the 1927 film Siren of the Tropics, starring the iconic Josephine Baker. Accompanied by a live score featuring jazz piano duo Angel Perez and Devin Shaw and organized by Dranoff 2 Piano, the audience can expect the film to come alive. Further enhancing the evening on Wednesday, September 14, will be an opening reception before the film's screening and a conversation with experts afterward.

Made on the cusp of the sound revolution, Siren of the Tropics, a silent French production, marked American expat Josephine Baker's film debut. A tale of deception and tragic love, the movie's plot takes place in a fictional French colony that presents a mishmash of different cultures. The film revolves around André Berval (played by Pierre Batcheff), who has been sent to the French West Indies as a prospector in a devious plan by a powerful man who wishes to steal Berval's fiancé. While on the island, Berval meets Papitou (played by Baker) who quickly falls in love with the Frenchman. Unaware of his engagement, Papitou follows Berval back to France and finds her true calling as a music hall performer, mirroring Baker's own stardom.

Siren of the Tropics, along with others films such as Zouzou and Princess Tam-Tam, crystallized the electric charisma of Baker, who was primarily known as a live performer. It's a rare opportunity to see the captivating star's larger-the-life persona on the big screen. Aside from pure star power, Baker, as the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, was a game changer for Black performers. As Terri Frances, author of Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism, notes Baker "projected vivaciousness, glamour, and a uniquely womanist internationalism."

A new live score performed on two Steinway concert grands will fill the cinema and accompany Baker's thrilling performance. Mixing the music of jazz-age performers like Scott Joplin, the king of ragtime Duke Ellington, pianist and singer Hazel Scott, and a more anachronistic Nina Simone, the original score is an exciting survey of Black composers and performers. The work of contemporary composer Martin Bejerano rounds out the production, providing a delightful complement to the moving image.

After the screening and performance, a panel discussion will address the historical representation of Black creatives in the performing arts. Frances, a University of Miami associate professor of cinematic arts and Josephine Baker scholar, will be joined by poet, author, and educator Mo Beasley and Gentry George, a choreographer and instructor at New World School of the Arts. The distinguished panel promises to deliver a thoughtful and illuminating discussion concerning the impact of Black performers and how to contextualize past representations with the present day.

The opening reception starts at 6 p.m. with the concert and film starting at 7, followed by a discussion. Tickets for the event are $50, with a limited number of $5 student tickets available at the box office.

Siren of the Tropics. 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 14, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-472-2249; Tickets cost $50.
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