James Reese Europe and Eugene Bullard fought hard and they swung hard. The early jazz musicians’ service during WWI earned them medals for bravery, but they were bestowed by the French military, because the American forces would not allow African Americans in combat divisions. Understandably, Bullard decided to stay longer in the comparatively more tolerant France, becoming a leader of the expatriate community in Montmartre. Director-editor-co-producer Joanne Burke and screenwriter-co-producer-companion-book-author David Burke survey that still influential artistic and musical expat scene in Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.
Fittingly, the Burkes’ doc starts with Europe, whose Harlem Hellfighters were quickly celebrated by the French citizenry for their syncopated marching music and their ferocious courage on the battlefield. Such a warm welcome was duly remarked upon in letters home and subsequently reported in the African American press. Not so surprisingly, many African American servicemen opted to stay in France, and many more joined them later as expatriates.
The Burkes earn a great deal of credit for devoting a fair amount of time to the criminally under-heralded Bullard, one of our true national heroes. On the other hand, they also fully address the great Sidney Bechet’s notoriously rowdy stay in-country (as in bullets flying—into bystanders), which presents a somewhat different side to the story. They also give Ada “Bricktop” Smith and a certain dancer by the name of Josephine Baker the attention they deserve, which definitely tilts the focus of the film towards music, but who would have it any other way? (It also makes you wonder why nobody has thought to produce a narrative film dramatizing Baker’s WWII years as a spy for the Free French.)
Still, there is some interesting discussion of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, who was one of the few expatriates willing to criticize his French hosts for their imperialism and nativist trade unions in the novel Banjo. We also see some striking art produced by African American artists, many of whom were exploring their African heritage for the first time.