When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that someone like Beyonce , a self-described “feminist” entertainer who, along with her proteges, coined the term “bootylicious” and has made a living carefully crafting and marketing a voluptuous body type, with the expressed objective to build and lift the self-esteem of curvy women — especially Black women with curves — to be interested in bringing Saartjie Baartman’s story to the big screen for an American moviegoing audience. Or, so it was rumored.
In certain respects, the parallels between their struggles — two Black women fiercely negotiating for ownership of their bodies, separated by different time periods — could not be more striking. The same can be said of other bootylicious Black entertainers — Nicki Minaj comes immediately to mind.
Both women were in the business of “spectacle,” albeit for distinctive reasons and under vastly disparate historical circumstances.
The criticism that Beyonce, as a fair-skinned Black woman with “European-like” attractiveness, should not portray Baartman because she clearly shares no physical resemblance with the tribal woman, holds weight. Casting her as Saartjie would be a definite misstep, even if she doubled down on altering her appearance with makeup and a flurry of prosthetics. Not only is it possible to find someone with a body type that closely matches Baartman’s. It’s been done. There’s nothing novel about the idea of a film adaptation of Saartjie’s life. Actor Yahima Torres, who portrayed Saartjie in French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus,” could serve as a touchstone.
What would be new is the cinematic perspective and attachment of an international star’s name to this kind of project. No one would dispute that Queen B’s interest in Baartman would lend major buzz to so important a persona. Remember when she name-dropped, sorta speak, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi’s in her song “Flawless”?
But, adapting Saartjie’s story to film for an American audience is (or should be) a priority for Hollywood, with or without Beyonce’s star power.
The story of Saartjie serves as both an inspiration and cautionary tale for contemporary Black women in show business, an industry whose success thrives on selling a particular body image. A brief look at her life and her function as an entertainer — what drew spectators to her shows — and her interest in entertainment as a money-making opportunity, will help readers understand why. (I suspect many of her Hollywood contemporaries may not get how deep the connection goes.)
Born in 1789 southwestern Africa — the year of The French Revolution — Saartjie, or “little Sara”, was a member of the Khoikhoi tribe. She had what scientist call steatopygia, an accumulation of fatty tissue in the buttocks and thighs, a genetic condition that dramatically altered her body shape — she had an exceptionally large booty. She also possessed an elongated labia minora, which Europeans dubbed her “Hottenton Apron”, that hung four inches from her vulva. It was common for Khoikhoi women to have this physical trait. She lost her mother before her first birthday. By the time she entered her teens, her father and husband had been murdered, and she’d been sold as a house servant to an illiterate black man and new master, Hendrik Cezar, who, in turn, was a servant to Alexander Dunlop, a British surgeon and physician. To top things off, Saartjie’s child died before turning two.
When Dunlop was fired from the British army, sending Cezar household into hard times, he schemed for riches with his servant and Saartjie. The human freak show circuit was in full swing, and, looking on the scene, Dunlop and Cezar surmised that Saartjie’s extraordinary derriere and “savage femininity” would be a hit with London’s Piccadilly public. Though Londoners were versed in the Eurocentric perception of Khoikhoi women or Hottentots, as exotic specimens from “the dark continent”, few had seen one.
This was also the period that saw the rise of scientific racism across Europe; and freak shows, or human zoos, premised on the notion of a great chain of being, appeared to substantiate the inferiority non-white races.
Despite this, Saartjie was not an unwilling participant. As professor of art history at University College London Tamar Garb explained to Jezebel, Saartjie “was not a slave, which is a common misconception. She was somebody who was paid for their work. In some sense, she agreed to the terms of her own subjugation.”
Her motive, Garb adds, was money: “She very much believed that she would accumulate the kind of money that would allow her to go back home.”
Saartjie, Cezar, and Dunlop became partners of sorts. Together they worked to raise Saartjie’s star and brand her product: “Saartjie Baartman: Hottentot Venus.” They obtained a space and stage in Piccadilly and constructed a set befitting a “savage”, complete with a grass hut. They secured ads in London’s major newspaper publications and distributed press releases to the city’s high society. Indeed, just as they predicted, Baartman was a hit, after she premiered on September 24, 1810.
Performances ran for four hours and featured singing and dancing. Saartjie even alternated between singing English and Koi when singing folk songs. Adorned with beads, bangles, and pendants, from a distance, she looked naked. She wasn’t, but added effect by wearing skin-colored stocking during performances. Like the grass hut, her costume was intentional, coinciding with European notions of “African” wardrobe.
From private parties to carriage-ride meet and greets, her time was taxed. Eventually, she caught the annoyance of abolitionists who sought judicial authority to return her humanity and ship her home. But Saartjie, having still not amassed the fortune she came for, refused. Her agency was in question. Saartjie would stay.
Sadly, the remainder of her life was less than stellar. With her partners no longer in the picture — Dunlop was dead and Cezar returned to South Africa — Saartjie packed up and moved to Paris. There she would be destroyed by that infamous killer of many-a-celebrity — irrelevancy.
The end near, she sank into alcoholism, wandered the streets, and died, cold and alone. She was 26.
Her body parts were illegally collected and curated by Georges Cuvier, one of the godfathers of racist theory. Her brain and genitals were embalmed and her remains put on display at the esteemed Natural Museum of History, where they were made to defend eugenicism.
We all know that the typical excuse for not investing in Black films is that Black stories do not touch on “universal values.” And we all know that this is BS!
What could be more “universal” than the black experience?! What could be more “universal” than the complexity and awful trajectory of Baartman’s life?! And with national bootymania at an all time high, and not looking to subside anytime soon, no other woman, though she be Black, is more relevant.
Think about Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, and Jen Selter; all of whom are, in some sense, culturally tied to Baartman, that is, women looking to empower themselves through capitalizing on their bodies. No, the tie is not perfect. Only three of these women (Kardashian, Izalea, and Selter) are given any credit for making the big booty an in thing. J. Lo, on the other hand, like Baartman, has been in an ongoing fight with body-shaming.
By any estimate, the film would spark conversation on the treatment of Black women in Western culture today. Though I must confess, it would be of benefit for Americans to give Black Venus a watch, captions and all. In any case, as long as big booties are a source of dehumanization, artists will always be obligated to deal with Baartman’s legacy.
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