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Amid Furor of Negative Reactions, Beyonce Will Not Star in Film Based on Life of Saartjie Baartman

Beyonce was at the center of a hornets’ swarm of controversy this week after rumors broke about her writing and starring in a film based on the life of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman. A Khoikhoi woman, Baartman was exhibited and exploited throughout Europe during the early 19th century due to her large buttocks and body structure. First reported by the British tabloid The Sun, Beyonce was supposedly acquiring a team of acting coaches and writers in order to win an Oscar nomination for Baartman’s story.

The rumors only intensified after comments made by Chief Jean Burgess of the Ghonaqua First Peoples of South Africa.  He stated, “She lacks the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah’s story, let alone playing the part. Ignoring the fact that the Khoikhoi is alive and that Sarah’s story would have an impact on how we are portrayed, it’s a mistake of great magnitude. 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 hers to tell.”

The groundswell came to an end yesterday, as Beyonce’s representative released a statement through stating, “This is an important story that should be told.  However, Beyonce is in no way tied to this project.”

Though there was massive disagreement over Beyonce telling Baartman’s story, there seems to be a level of agreement that Baartman’s story needs to be told.  The ultimate story of colonialism and white supremacy, Baartman’s life consisted of caged humiliation from London and France.  Even after her death in 1815, her body was denigrated.  Her brain and genitals were displayed at the Musée del’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris until 1974, but her body was not returned to her native South Africa until 2002.

In 2010, Abdellatif Kechiche directed a film based on her life, the French drama Black Venus.  In an email to in reaction to the story, Jack Devnarain, chairman of the South African Guild of Actors stated, “The story of Saartjie Baartman is a tale of torture and humiliation of a woman, womanhood in general and an entire culture indigenous to Southern Africa.  As an episode in South African history, it describes the crippling damage of racism, sexism and exploitation,” he said. “Baartman was paraded as a freak and brutally robbed of her humanity.”

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