At the New York Film Festival of 2010, one of the more unusual selections being introduced to the attendees was a French film titled “Venus Noire”, or in English, “Black Venus.” It was unusual in the sense that the film had even been considered for a screening before American audiences, whose familiarity with history’s darker chapters is often of the most basic sense, especially in matters where race is concerned. The story of South Africa’s most famous Khoisan woman who went by the name Saartije, although not the only African exploited and exhibited as if she were caged animal during the 19th century, seems to possess the ability to cut at peoples’ hearts and challenge their ideals about sex and race in ways many other countless lives destroyed in the African Diaspora do not. There are many different theories as to why this is, but one thing for certain is that this film does not sugarcoat history as would likely have been the case were this a Hollywood production. Director Abdellalif Kechiche’s film doesn’t hold back in its brutal depiction of even the most humiliating and heart wrenching moments in her life, reportedly causing some viewers to react by walking out of the theater sickened and disturbed by what they’d seen. But this was indeed 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. Budding young actress Yahima Torres, in her film debut, captured Saartije’s pain at being reduced to subhuman in the eyes of every class in European society, and her delivery proved absolutely flawless.
((**Since this synopsis appeared, the author of this post has reassessed his opinion of the film, and now believes the movie did little to honor Saartje Baartman’s actual legacy.))
The film’s opening scene shows a respected French scientist of the early 19th century by the name of George Cuvier presenting to his colleagues a plaster cast of Saartije’s body along with two jars: one containing Saartije’s genitalia and the other her brain. From the study of her remains immediately following her death, he announced his “scientific” conclusions to the world. Upon examining her large buttocks and the “shape of cranial remains”, he pronounced the “innate inferiority of the Negro race” to be a “scientifically established fact.” Furthermore, in a quote that will be of some interest to students studying the African origin of Egyptian Civilization, he makes the following assessment: “What has been hereto noted and must be repeated, in view of the errors propagated by recent works, is that…[not] any Negro race gave birth to the people who gave rise to the civilization of Ancient Egypt, from where it may be said that the whole world inherited the principles of law, science and even religion.” This quote is of course entirely fictional, but it strikes me as being very much the same argument which is still at the heart of many Euro centrists who echo these sentiments today: the internalized racist belief that Black people are simply not capable of constructing great civilizations or of the intellectual capacity to achieve accomplishments of such magnitude. It’s an abominable belief to be sure, but one that centuries of racism and oppression have internalized in the minds of many. This belief has unfortunately left a deep stain in the history books children everywhere read from, and it has served to perpetuate the continuing myth of white superiority.
Saartije, later baptized and christened Sarah Baartman, was a Khoisan woman in what is now South Africa born in the last decade of the 18th century. At a young age she lost her mother, and in her teenage years she lost both her father and brother, who’d worked as farmers and cattle-herders at various points of their lives, to a rebellion against invading white forces. Saartije was taken captive and forced into servitude to a Dutch family in Cape Town. A British man by the name of Alexander Dunlop suggested she travel with him to his home country where she could earn her own living as a part of an exhibition in London (which unbeknownst to Saartije was an exhibition of “animal specimens”). At the tender age of 19, she was taken from Cape Town in South Africa to London, England where she was put on display and promoted as a genuine “savage from the heart of Africa.” Audiences gawked at her as she performed a semi-nude dance before they were invited by Dunlop to come up and place their hands on and cop a feel of her unusually large butt. Some even poked her with a stick. This exhibition in England came to a head when a group of abolitionists took Dunlop to court, charging that he was holding Saartije in captivity against her will. But when Saartije herself testified in court that she was just a woman trying to make an honest wage to provide for herself, the case was dismissed. If anything, the Court case only caused the show’s popularity to grow, and eventually the exhibition moved to Paris, France. In France, the humiliation and torture inflicted on her only grew, and eventually she was used as a specimen for “scientific research” by scientists hoping to prove once and for all the existence of the grand scale of the human races, of which the so-called “Negroid”, they insisted, rested firmly at the bottom. They studied, examined, and placed their hands on her naked body, and any feelings or emotions she displayed were deemed unworthy of consideration or respect. At this time in her life she had become addicted to whiskey and drank heavily. When the exhibition’s days were over, circumstances forced her to take up prostitution as one of the only means of employment she could earn a wage to live on. (CORRECTION: It is not entirely clear this was the case.)
In late 1815, she was discovered dead in her living quarters after having lived a mere 25 years. The cause of death is still a matter of some debate, most commonly listed as either syphilis or pneumonia. Immediately upon her passing her earthly remains were sold to the scientific community for research. Her body was mutilated, placed in jars and put on display for all the world to see. As late as 1974 her remains as well as the plaster cast of her body were still on display at “the Museum of Man” in France, of which the latter (plaster cast) still remains. Finally in 2002, after a nearly decade-long campaign by South African President Nelson Mandela, her human remains were returned to the land of her birth. While she’d been forgotten by many, South Africa never did forget her and ensured that her body as well as her legacy would not remain in European hands forever.
Watch the film below or, for the best viewing experience, you can buy the Region 1 DVD HERE.