Since initially posting my synopsis of the French film Venus Noire (Black Venus), back in March (along with the YouTube embedded video), I have taken some time to reevaluate my position on the film. After re-watching the entire movie in its entirety and reading several biographies of the real Saartje Baartman, upon whose life the film was based, I’ve come to the conclusion that the movie does not do her or the life she lived any meaningful justice. At the time of writing the 1st synopsis, I must confess I’d only watched the first half of the nearly 3-hour movie, which, although taking certain liberties with historical record, did not have the same effect of detachment that the 2nd half of the film did.
Originally I’d opined that “director Abdellalif Kechiche’s film doesn’t hold back in its brutal depiction of even the most humiliating and heart wrenching moments in [Saartje's] life… but this was her life, and it could be said that choosing not to include these scenes in all their brutal honesty would be a disservice to her historical legacy.” There is something inherently wrong with this statement, however, in that it takes for granted that the motive behind including these graphic scenes was specifically to invoke empathy from the movie’s audience, which now I’m not so certain was the case. The most sexually explicit scenes were so excruciatingly long and graphic that they were better-suited for some sort of fetish pornography film instead of a movie based on historical events. While normally I would vehemently defend the inclusion of such explicit scenes if it’s for the purpose of creating a realistic reenactment of history, it’s difficult to see what all this added to the overall narrative of the film. I don’t believe in sugarcoating history, especially when it comes to the very real and intense suffering that the young Sarah Baartman endured at the hands of those who sought only to humiliate and exploit her. But several scenes in particular succeeded in completely detaching the audience from any emotional investment they might have had in watching this film and were clearly added only for shock value. It’s similar to the ways in which pornography is intended to turn people on and (for lack of a better phrase) “get them off” without feeling any sense of emotional attachment to the actors in the film. There are excruciatingly long scenes in which the ‘Hottentot Venus’ is shown getting fucked by a dildo by multiple people as well as scenes where Parisian female prostitutes are shown getting penetrated by some random unattractive male customers. Perhaps this could be more easily justified if there were some real concrete evidence of the more explicit scenes having happened in real life, or if these scenes were used as a vehicle to reflect the pain and humiliation Sarah Baartman must have so often felt inside. But this didn’t happen, and the audience was left waiting for the moral point of this horrific story to be somehow driven home.
Saartje’s life was humiliating enough without having to include extra theatrics for shock value. Contrary to what numerous reports have claimed, there simply isn’t enough evidence to support as a matter of fact that Saartje took up prostitution as a profession to support herself near the end of her life. Although possible, it shouldn’t have been the focal point around which the entire last hour of the movie centered. Nor has it ever been confirmed that the disease Saartje died from was in any way sexually-related. There is a common misconception that it is a historically proven fact that Saartje died from syphilis, but this speculation has a lot more to do with racist stereotyping than being based on any objective available data.
The straw that really kind of broke the camel’s back with me and this film, however, might seem a bit trivial to some, but is of great significance when viewed in proper historical context. In quite a number of scenes in the movie, the very first in which she appears being one of them, Saartje’s performances in front of groups of uncultivated European crowds begin with her literally being shackled inside a cage. While Saartje was certainly not a free woman in any real sense, inclusion of physical shackles visible to the eye was a fabrication on the director’s part. In the book, African Queen: the real life of the Hottentot Venus, author Rachel Holmes dates this popular misconception back to a negative review of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ Act that appeared in an issue dated November, 1810 of the popular UK publication The Sporting Magazine. The writer who penned the review showed great sympathy toward Saartje and recoiled on account of what he saw as her forced submission, viewing the ‘Venus’ Act in terms of the dominant racial order of the time – Saartje’s white manager as master and she his subordinate slave. In Britain of 1810 where this review was first published, although slavery was still the practice of the British Empire, British people largely saw themselves as being above toleration of slavery on their own soil (in other words, ‘slavery is terrible and has no place in civilized society, but we’re willing to allow it to happen outside of our borders and in our names if it can further enrich us‘). Bearing this in mind the Sporting Magazine writer decried the ways in which Saartje was “shewn like a caged beast.” (Holmes, page 49.) Note the word “like.” Holmes continues, “Although many women have appeared both before and since on leashes, chained, or in cages, both literally enslaved and enslaved for popular entertainment, Saartje was not one of them.” Therefore the movie’s use of the cage was an addition that wasn’t even necessary to the overall demonstration that Saartje found herself the constant victim of white colonialist oppression. The cage in which Saartje performed was not so easily visible; it didn’t have to be.
In closing, I want to end this passage with an excerpt from Holmes’s book (page 41) which perfectly describes the reality of the historical period in which Sarah Baartman entered into Europe, never to return to the land of her birth:
She arrived toward the end of the era when sentimental primitivism held sway, and at the beginning of the rise of the new pseudoscience of ethnology, in which human beings became living specimens. Ethnology went hand in white cotton glove and khaki pith-helmet with imperialism, the economic exploitation of Africa, and the emergence of scientific racism. Saartje’s time in London coincided with a new era of European imperialist expansion into the African interior, feminized by its would-be British colonizers as a continent ripe for conquest. Dovetailing with this was the fact that African otherness, with its implications of the alien and strange, had an appeal long exploited by theatrical and popular entertainments. The Hottentot Venus arose in London as the very apotheosis of Europe’s invented Africa, the dark continent of feminized impenetrability and crude potency.