Black Venus (Venus Noire): Watch the entire film chronicling the life of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (VIDEO)

New York Film Festival 2010, African Diaspora, South African History

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.

Hottentot Venus real picture, 1814, 1810, South Africa
A more realistic portrayal of Saartije aka Sarah Baartman as opposed to the constant cartoon depictions of her drawn by white comics.

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.

38 thoughts

  1. Hello every 1, I must thank you all for the wonderful information that was shared. I’m from the Caribbean and if wasn’t for this movie and comments I would not have gained further information about our African history. This movie opened my mind to a lot of things and made me look at the society we live in. It even strengthened my thoughts and feelings as to what to accept and what not to accept. Thanks again for the wonderful information.

  2. I’ve just watched this. It could have been a better movie in many ways. I wondered what the “director’s cut” would look like, I mean, just bad editing in many places. I didn’t know anything about this story, but what it told me was that male fetishization of women’s sexual organs has not changed in fact, but plays out different ways in different cultures, and times. Yes, coloured women are even more fetishiezed, as sex, but all women are. In African and middle Eastern countries, women suffer genital mutilation, and we do here too, called hysterectomy, castration, episiotomy, vaginal tightening after childbirth etc. This is why I as a women who is not Black could relate to Sarah.

    I plan to watch it again, probably fastforwarding over the gratuitous sex scenes, because I thought the story was very much what happens to prostituted and battered women today. Why do they stay, what makes them allow such things to be done to them? I think women are so groomed to think it’s their fault and they must try harder, and then to hate what they’ve become and dissociation is the only choice they have left.

    Sorry if I’m not very cogent in what I’m trying to say.

    Thank you for writing about this remarkable film, even with all it’s flaws. Some of what it achieves is showing the devastating racism, but I also see plain old misogyny.

    Men fear resent and seek to destroy women’s organs, some now even having them through plastic surgery, saying thus they are women. I saw that too in this film. I like you may alter somewhat what I’ve written here, on reflection and second viewing, but this is such a powerful film I just want to urge everyone to see it.

  3. Caleb, you visited my blog (thank you) and I am so happy that you did because your blog has really grabbed my attention. I must watch the movie.

    1. You’re welcome. I’ve actually been following your blog for a little while now. Glad I found yours as well. It’s a great place to keep up to date on all the injustices currently happening in America.

  4. So, she was born “the last decade of the 18th century.” but died in 1915? I think Caleb should correct that to her being born in the last decade of the 19th century.”

    Also, the movie industry does not sugarcoat the suffering of blacks at the hands of whites. On the contrary, it exaggerates it and creates hatred and racism where it might not have even existed. For example, most lynching victims in the Old South were whites. Most of the victims were lynched in retribution to crimes they had committed – and an ineffective justice system. But the way Hollywood (and all the other powers that be) portrays it, mobs of ignorant whites were regularly lynching blacks solely because of the color of their skin. As for the immense suffering inflicted upon whites and Asians by blacks in our own generation, the movie industry almost completely ignores it.

    There’s not a peep about about the many white children who suffered gross racism at the hands of blacks because of forced busing. We hear nothing about the ongoing South African genocide against Afrikaaners. The horrific rapes and murders of whites, by blacks, only make it to the local news (unless there’s a celebrity involved or some other unusual circumstance). Similarly, the masses are kept ignorant about the ongoing extermination, by blacks, of African pygmies. We hear little about the treatment, by blacks, of albinos in Africa. Where are the movies portraying the African slave trade that ravaged coastal European communities for centuries?

    1. You have made so many ridiculous assertions and inaccurate statements in this one comment I don’t even know where to begin.
      I’ll begin with the outrageous and historically inaccurate notion that most Southern lynching victims were white and “were lynched in retribution to crimes they had committed” as well as your equally absurd claim that “Hollywood” inaccurately portrays “ignorant whites were regularly lynching blacks solely because of the color of their skin.” According to Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck’s 1992 book, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings: 1882-1930,
      Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority of the almost 2,500 lynch victims were African-American. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.” In fact, most of these lynchings were set off by a whisper that somewhere some white woman had been raped, and the town folk immediately decided entire Black communities would pay the price for it regardless of facts. And it isn’t “Hollywood” that portrays it this way, it’s the actual Southern white people themselves in their very own postcards and letters they sent through the mail to their friends and family members! Yes, you heard right. These people would take photographs of their lynching victims as they were being lynched and burned and sell them in convenience stores as souvenirs. They saw absolutely nothing wrong with their racism and they said as much. You can see the actual postcards and the barbaric messages letter-writers wrote along side them in the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
      Then you say “many white children suffered gross racism at the hands of blacks because of forced busing.” Are you really that stupid?? “Forced busing” was a method of desegregation and has nothing to do with your myth of “reverse racism.” Desegregation is the result of centuries of white supremacist policies which sought to give everything to whites at the expense of everyone else – policies which you undoubtedly support.
      “South African genocide against Afrikaaners”. Again, you refuse to know anything about history but what you wish. Europeans invaded South Africa and committed horrendous genocide against African people for over a century in their home countries. Weren’t you just defending “retribution”? So why do you have a problem with an African seeking “retribution” against the invaders of their own country? Fool.
      ” the masses are kept ignorant about the ongoing extermination, by blacks, of African pygmies.” African pygmies are Black, so I doubt it that concerns you.
      “We hear little about the treatment, by blacks, of albinos in Africa.” You probably consider these “albinos” Black anyway, so again I doubt you really care about that either.
      “Where are the movies portraying the African slave trade that ravaged coastal European communities for centuries?” Why don’t you ask the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries of all such trade? Or better yet let’s leave those movies in your demented head where they belong.

      1. Celeb, you are one dumb ignorant cunt. Come to South Africa, come see the genocide, the murders and the crimes against white people. Go learn where this country comes from, who came from where and who made it happen. Go fuck your black whores, that is what you are good at and lend your ears out to the false news you get served.

        1. Could you be any more of a dumbass? First of all, the murder rate of whites in post-apartheid South Africa is much less than it is for Africans (actual Africans, not fake ones like you). Many of you live in gated communities living off the wealth you stole from the labor of Africans whose country you invaded and continue not to acknowledge. If anything, in post-apartheid South Africa the Africans have been too accommodating of their former political oppressors (and in some cases still economic oppressors) instead of showing you to the guillotine as is done in most revolutions. You should be thanking them every day that you still have your life and are allowed to continue living in that country. Are you seriously trying to deny that your relatively recent lineage is in Europe? It’s pretty obvious that the ignorant one is you.

  5. Caleb,

    I think you’re right. The second part of the film sort of turned into exactly what the film was saying about her life: exploitative and voyeuristic. And it did gain a sort of pornographic edge.

    I think it’s correct to say that since we have so little account of her life, and none from her, that speculation has to take place to some degree. But what I disagree with concerning this director is his smug dismissal of analysis by saying too much has been done. What because he didn’t want to deal with the different perspectives on this?

    As an avid researcher as it applies to the subjects I take up, the film never stops growing, because conversations don’t. You continue to learn so your subject can gain dimension while you are on a shoot.

    Also, the research and conclusions different people make by comparing different types of research (most likely of the society, people, mores of the day, practices) can reap portrayal that is closer and closer to what was. This happens all the time with other types of discoveries where research will fail to reap much, until more is found out. So his attitude, is partially responsible for the shift and jump in perspective of the second half of film. Seems like he stopped being rigorous about bringing what is there to film, took a creative leap the rest of the way. Which storytellers do all the time, but when there is so little out there about this woman to begin with, do we really want more none information?

    1. Your analysis pretty much destroyed this movie and its director with the way you brought him to task (-; Now I’m starting to see that he was quite lazy in his portrayal, as if he didn’t see it fit to delve into what might have been the case based on other evidence of the times in which this film took place.

      1. Hahaha yeah I guess (I hate doing that cuz obviously I’m no perfect filmmaker). But when I have the means like him…

        Agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your comment! 🙂

  6. The exploitation of this African women which went on for years after her death is disgusting and unacceptable. I am glad her remains were returned to South Africa, reinstating her dignity though after death. I think details such as this from the landscape of our histories, need to be shared as an education on who we’ve been and what we’ve done, so as not to repeat the mistakes but also as a gesture towards acknowledging what we’ve created and the final honor and laying to rest of the individuals dishonored in the process.

    However, in revealing such detail to ourselves (society) – I also think we must take great care in our research, and the research of presentation. Even the effect such a presentation is bound to have as offered from different perspectives. Because there is so little account of Ms. Baartman’s experience (from her own view), some things invite interpretation and conjecture which I feel may be creating a fictional character similar to how she was prompted to do in the shows.

    The filmmaker also looks to have taken great care in presenting as brutal and realistic a picture as he could, but an inherent risk in doing so remains creating the same voyeuristic circumstance which (most likely) victimized this young woman. There is a distance in depicting the character which allows us to watch and draw our own conclusions, which pushes the viewer to do so and that may be a strength, but the director does not seem to broadcast his final view on this so it’s like participating in the brutality as history.

    That may be the point, but after all this woman went though – a part of me feels it would have honored her more to leave well enough alone. Or to write a book devoid of more images of her as a protest to her continual display.

    Still, I am glad I saw it as it inspired much thought around what is acceptable for a filmmaker to undertake and if everything is open field. I’m still in that inquiry, the above what I feel right now.

    Perhaps I’d be okay with the film if there was some new light shed on exploitation or colonization of this woman’s body and very existence. One that named the whys then spoke to it’s lack of merit. Otherwise what did he just create in total for the audience to leave with — truly? I dunno…

    1. You made a truly excellent point and one well taken. The first part of the film had so much potential to really make people feel with the story, but the 2nd part was almost so pornographic that you are so disgusted that you forget what the point of making the film is about. I learned just the other week that there is no proof she worked as a prostitute at the end of her life and that she not once appeared on stage in a cage as the movie portrayed.

      1. Oh wow. Really? So…I wonder what this filmmaker’s research consisted of. Sometimes unfortunately, a manuscript is simply purchased.

        Oh by the way, on the news tonight I saw that Israel attacked Syria (question of whether or not we knew).

        A bell went off in my head concerning what you said yesterday about the Neocons.

        1. Yep. It’s just endless warfare )-:

          And I read an interview with the filmmaker in which he claimed he’d read every book ever written about her here:
          Granted the only book I’ve read on her is called “African Queen: the real life of the hottentot venus” by Rachel Holmes. But there really isn’t a whole lot of literature written about her that I’ve come across?

          1. He says he read every book? I’ve read alot of articles by reputable writers who have said there isn’t alot out there on her. So I wonder what his ‘every book,’ consists of? He was probably trying to protect himself from criticism. Just say…you took some creative license. Ugh.

            Thanks for the link and I have to check out Rachel Holmes’ book.

    2. Here is the director’s quote I was referring to earlier. “I have read everything that has been written about her, and I found that too often there is a tendency for too much analysis.”

      1. Caleb,

        Why does WordPress erase comments before you post them at times? I was hovering over replay and my comment disappeared. Didn’t post!!!! Ugh, so annoying. It happens alot.

        Anyway, I don’t think I care for the Director’s comment. How can he just dismiss other people’s conclusions? You may not agree with them, but thinking there was too much analysis can almost guarantee us he didn’t truly digest them.

        Well, most artists are somewhat narcissistic. NOT ME! Lol.

        But you know what I mean. Especially filmmakers because of the lengths you must go to the create any work, you really have to think, what you have to say is important. Maybe this one, is a little extreme? Smh.

        1. In the interview he sounded quite reasonable, but the 2nd part of that film was just soo extreme that one is so disgusted that they quit paying attention to the film. But he’s right I guess to say that there has been a lot of analysis, but of course we have no records left of what she herself thought about everything that was happening in her life, only the thoughts of men who could care less about what she felt, so I guess we kind of have to speculate to tell her story?

          1. Ugh. Caleb…I can’t deal with this WP just erased another very detailed response. It’s like it’s refreshing as you write. I will respond later if you don’t mind. I had to run. :[ (Response tonight.)

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