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Why rumored Beyoncé biopic of Saartjie Baartman riled some critics

The message of many black critics seemed to boil down to: Saartjie Baartman's exploitation may be an ugly part of our history, but it is still our history.
Singer Beyonce arrives at TIDAL X: 1020 Amplified by HTC at the Barclays Center, Oct. 20, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Singer Beyonce arrives at TIDAL X: 1020 Amplified by HTC at the Barclays Center, Oct. 20, 2015, in New York. 

Controversial casting decisions are nothing new in Hollywood, but rarely is there a backlash to a project that hasn't even gotten off the ground. This was the case with a purported biopic of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a historically significant South African woman who became a freak show attraction in the early 19th century because of her extremely curvy physical proportions.

Earlier this week, stories circulated linking pop star Beyoncé to a film about Baartman's life that she would both star in and write, which prompted cries of cultural appropriation and whitewashing — in this case by potentially casting a more light-skinned performer— of an iconic figure. Beyoncé's reps threw cold water on the concept in a statement to Billboard magazine on Tuesday. "Beyonce is in no way tied to this project," they said in a statement. "This is an important story that should be told, however."

The legacy of Baartman, also know by the problematic moniker "The Hottentot Venus," is a complex and fascinating one, and it has been resurrected recently with renewed attention to issues of body shaming and objectifying women of color. The reaction to the Beyoncé reports recalled the backlash against reality TV star Kim Karashian's widely publicized "Break the Internet" nude photo shoot for Paper magazine in the fall of 2014, which critics also felt showed a lack of respect for the indignities Baartman endured.

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“In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black — it looks like Mrs. West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin’ idea,” wrote Blue Telusma in an op-ed for theGrio at the time.

The message of many black critics seemed to boil down to: This may be an ugly part of our history, but it is still our history. 

"I can understand why Beyoncé would be drawn to this story. I also completely disagree with assessments that suggest Beyoncé isn't intelligent, respectable, or established enough to tell such a story. That's the kind of intellectual gate-keeping that I try to stay away from," Feministing writer Sesali B. told MSNBC on Thursday. "But for me, a black feminist and scholar who has had to study Baartman, I'm not sure I'm ready for anyone to make it.
"Even within black feminist thought, many have made it so that Baartman's body and corporeal experience stands in for all black women. Whenever we talk about black women's bodies, the legacy of Baartman is on the periphery. And I'm not sure that's fair or particularly useful," she added. "Because most films are capitalist ventures, it feels like this project would be an opportunity to take advantage of a fixed iconography rather than pay homage to a life tainted by exploitation."

According to historians, Baartman was part of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa. After being sold into captivity, she was smuggled into London where Europeans would pay to ogle her impressive frame. The exploitative treatment she received rallied British abolitionists to her defense, but a court challenge to her ownership was unsuccessful. She was eventually relocated to France where she is believed to have died in relative poverty. After her death, her remains were dissected and displayed as late as the 1970s as a curiosity for onlookers. After numerous entreaties from South African authorities, including the late president Nelson Mandela, her remains were finally returned to her homeland in 2002.

Today, prominent women of color like tennis pro Serena Williams and even first lady Michelle Obama have seen the spirit of Baartman resurrected in the form of hateful rhetoric directed at their physical appearance and proportions. Beyoncé has also, on occasion, been the subject of insensitive stereotyping, but some critics from across the globe believe she doesn't have the depth to convey Baartman's suffering.

"She lacks the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah's story, let alone playing the part," Jean Burgess, a chief of the Ghonaqua First Peoples, told News24 in Cape Town, South Africa. "Why Sarah Baartman? Why not a story about an Indigenous American woman? I can only see arrogance in her attempt to tell a story that is not her’s to tell."

Jarvis DeBerry for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans also sees potential issues. "A film about a person presented as a circus freak being played by Beyoncé, a pop star celebrated for her beauty, would have been problematic," he added.

Sesali B. said that it's too soon to address Baartman's problematic legacy. "For now, I'd like for Baartman to be left alone. When I wish for her to rest in peace, I mean it," she told MSNBC.

Still, even though the film isn't apparently happening, Jack Devnarain, chairman of the South African Guild of Actors, agreed with Beyoncé's statement that Baartman's story deserves big screen consideration in a separate statement to Billboard. "Baartman was paraded as a freak and brutally robbed of her humanity. Her story needs to be told," he said.