African Americans and The French: a documentary



This 2-hour documentary will reach all audiences interested in entertainment and music, as well as in the history of the 20th century and in African American culture. A story of tolerance and attraction, it will tell them about the enrichment brought on by the exchanges between two cultures, a far cry from the many stories of hate and oppression which make up most historical documentaries. A co-production with France, the project  will be broadcast in the US and in Europe, and aimed at a variety of ancillary markets. It will be directed by Charles Burnett who will bring his unique perspective to the project, and produced by Arabella Hutter, a EU national with experience both in the USA and in France.



Director of photography

James Callanan is an award winning cinematographer whose work has been seen on broadcast television for two decades.

A graduate with high honors from SVA, James Callanan's extensive documentary work began in 1978 as the second camera operator on Roy Frumkes' "Document of the Dead," an award winning film about cult horror film director George Romero shot on the set of his film "Dawn of the Dead." Throughout the '80's, James Callanan shot twenty seven travel films around Europe and South America for such clients as American Express, TWA, Hertz , and various national tourist bureaus.  In 1987-88, he shot eight episodes of the NBC docu/drama crime series, "Missing Reward" for director Rob Cohen.

Since 1996, James Callanan's cinematography has been seen frequently on PBS. As the long time cinematographer of director David Grubin, their productions include the upcoming "Marie Antoinette" (2006), as well as "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided" (nominated for Emmys for cinematography, direction, and non-fiction), "America 1900" (Peabody Award winner), "Truman" (Peabody and Emmy winner for Best Non-Fiction), and "TR-the story of Theodore Roosevelt" (Emmy winner for Best Non-Fiction) and "R.F.K," all for ‘the American Experience, "Young Doctor Freud" (2003), the Emmy  Award winning science series "The Secret Life of the Brain"(2002), and "Napoleon" (2000) (Peabody Award and nominated for Emmys for cinematography, direction, and non-fiction.) 

Other notable documentaries include Charles Schultz' 'The Rural Studio' which premiered at the Whitney Biennale in 2002 and "Miotte vu par Raul Ruiz" by the Chilean author and director Raul Ruiz about abstract expressionist painter Jean Miotte.



Producer Arabella Hutter, with dual EU and USA citizenship, has been working for over fifteen years in the field of cinema and television, first in Europe then in the United States.

She started as an assistant editor then sound editor in London in the late eighties. She worked on films and documentaries for the British Film Institute, the BBC and Channel 4 : ”Wild Flowers”for Channel 4, “The Reflecting Skin ”with Viggo Mortensen, are two examples. She also created experimental films as part of the Battersea Film Coop and wrote short scripts. Two Enghlish/Russian co-productions take her to Moscow where she supervises their postproduction : “Assassin of the Tsar”with Malcolm McDowel, selected for the Cannes Films Festival 1992, and “Lost in Siberia”, selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes 1992. She also worked in Paris for Gaumont/BBC on a feature film based on a novel by Dirk Bogarde : “Voices in the Garden”with Anouk Aimée.

She switched to production, working as production manager on a feature documentary shot on 35mm, “Celluloid Phoenix”, about the Directors’ Fortnight. focusing on Bertolucci, Ivory, and other celebrated directors. in 1993. She then moved to New York, attracted by the independent film scene. She worked as a production manager than producer on low budget independent films, video installations, documentaries such as “Connections”,  a documentary about the preservation of the American landscape, broadcast on PBS in 1996, on 14 shows of “Inside the Actors’ Studio ”for Bravo, with Glen Close, Christopher Walken, Mathew Broderick, “A Tribute to Mohammed Ali ”, and other projects. She was asked to join Decoy Films after she worked in 2000 on one of their short features, “For Earth Below”broadcast on the Sundance Channel. While at Decoy, she worked on the distribution and marketing of “Gibtown”, a documentary broadcast on PBS, and participated in producing and developing projects. She left Decoy Films in 2004 to devote herself to her own projects. She also writes fiction and contributes articles to “Le Temps ”, a French-speaking European newspaper.



Director CHARLES BURNETT'S, a Mississippi native moved to Los Angeles at an early age. He received a M.F.A. from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television. "Killer of Sheep," Burnett's UCLA thesis film, was expanded into his first feature. It was declared a "national treasure" by the Library of Congress. It was among the first 50 films placed in the National Film Registry because of its significance.  Burnett's next film was "My Brother's Wedding," made in 1983. He wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film centering on the theme of envy and its power to warp families.

In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the family drama, "To Sleep With Anger." Danny Glover starred as the charming, Southern family friend, "Harry," who insinuates himself on the troubled family, forcing his inner turmoil to the surface. The film won three 1991 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. Additionally, the National Society of Film Critics presented Burnett their 1990 award for Best Screenplay for "To Sleep With Anger." It also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. His next film, "The Glass Shield," was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force.

Burnett made his television debut with his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, "Nightjohn," starring Carl Lumbly, Lorraine Toussaint, Allison Jones and Bill Cobbs. Based on the young-adult novel by Gary Paulsen, "Nightjohn" is a period piece about a slave's risky attempt to teach an orphan slave girl to read and write.The New Yorker's film critic Terrence Rafferty called "Nightjohn" the "best American movie of 1996.”

Burnett's work also includes the 1998 ABC mini-series "Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding," starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; the 1999 ABC telepic, "Selma, Lord, Selma," starring Jurnee Smollett, Mackenzie Astin and Clifton Powell; the documentary about U.S. immigration, "America Becoming;" the short film, "When It Rains" and "Bless Their Little Hearts," as the screenwriter and cinematographer. He joined directors Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Wim Wenders with Warming By The Devil's Fir,e a personal and impressionistic film about blues music. In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective of his work presented at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

He is also the recipient of a 1988 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant.

In February 2011, Charles Burnett’s work was honored by a retrospective of his work at MOMA in New York City.

          Project Plan

Arabella Hutter, a documentary producer, will produce this documentary in partnership with the production company. She will collaborate with the production

company during development in the writing, researching and planning of the project. Charles Burnett will bring his extraordinary talent and perspective to the

project, while Hutter will provide, in addition to her passion for the subject, her expertise in production and postproduction both in France and in the USA.

Bonne Pioche, the company which produced “March Of The Penguins” will act as the French co-production partner.


African Americans and France: A Love Story will be a feast for the senses, entertaining while informative and inspiring. The story will be propelled forward by a dramatic component, whereas content will be supported by interviews  A collage of live contemporary footage of Paris and African Americans intercut with stock footage of entertainers and musicians, voice-over readings of great poetry and literature, amusing stories, interviews with larger-than-life characters, it will abound in unforgettable images and sounds.

Audience impact

The strength of this documentary lies in the far reach of its subject. While glamorous and fun, it touches on history, music, art and literature. Like Ken Burns Jazz series on PBS, like “I’ll Make Me A World: 100 Years of African American Arts”, it will appeal to music lovers, art enthusiasts, and people interested in 20th century history. There has never been a documentary about the unique relationship between African Americans and the French. Many have touched on the subject, African American writers in France and soldiers during World War are two examples, but none have shown just how influenced both people have been by each other in terms of music, arts, literature, philosophy, and plain living. Just as African Americans and the French were able to overcome racial differences, this  documentary will reach out to audiences across the racial divide on PBS, or HBO or another major broadcaster. It will find a natural market in the educational field and all ancillary markets, as well as with European broadcasters.

[2nd part]

The romance

After the war, a café society thrived in Paris’ Left Bank. A lot of thinking and exchanges of ideas took place in these cafés, attracting African American who had moved to Paris as political expatriates. While incidents of racism were on the rise, African Americans retained their privileged position in France because of their artistic prestige. The mood was very different than it had been before the war. Gone were the carefree years of the 20’s and 30’s. Millions of people had perished, Jews had suffered a genocide, and the atomic bomb had been dropped. Along fellow French writers such as Sartre and Camus, African Americans, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, were ready for some changes in the world. At the same time, African Americans came up with a revolutionary music whose sounds echoed this change of mood and which became the soul of the new intellectual movement: Bebop.

One story:

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about a character having a philosophical epiphany while listening to the blues. He was fanatical about jazz, and so was Marcel Camus. They hung out in the Left Bank jazz cellars with Richard Wright, Chester Himes and Miles Davis who had an affair with an iconic French comedian, Juliette Greco. Boris Vian, a French writer and jazz trumpet player, was part of the group. His novel “I Will Spit On Your Graves” was published under a pseudonym to create the illusion that it had been written by an African American. Its plot had similarities to Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”

     The mature years

And then they left again. Not out of anger or disinterest for their paramour. They were summoned home by a very different mistress:

the civil rights movement.

One story

In the film Paris Blues, Sydney Poitier plays a young, successful saxophone player who decides to leave his beloved Paris to join his fellow African Americans in the fight for civil rights in the United States.

The children

Today African American artists do not experience as much the need to leave their country, since it is possible for them to express themselves in the United States. Still, heartstrings subsist, and some follow the footsteps of their intellectual forefathers, such as the writer Shay Youngblood, as told in her memoir “Black Girl in Paris”. In France the fervor was taken up by a new generation: the kids of the 90’s and 00’s when they fell for hip hop and African American culture. And they have it bad. Music, clothes, hairstyle, gestures are imported. Even Spike Lee’s movies are more consistently successful in France than in the United States. There is a fervent obsession in France with African American culture, which is not as reciprocal as it used to.

One story

Hip hop has found an echo in the young people of North African descent who live in France and share with African Americans the experience of racism and oppression. A modern dance company named itself after the expression BlackBlanc Beur which means Black White Arab and sounds like Bleu Blanc Rouge, the French flag. This France-based company strives to reinvent French identity by integrating the French and Arab experience, and expressing it through hip hop and breakdance.

                            The separation


World War II. A country at war is no place for foreigners, and the Nazi menace was particularly severe for ethnic minorities. African

Americans left. But they came back as soldiers, and again, fought for the liberation of France. And fell in love all over again.

One story

Famously Josephine Baker worked for the French resistance and was later decorated. Her involvement increased her popularity after the war, especially in view of the many French artists who had collaborated with the Nazis.

The (passionate) courtship

Enjoying the embrace of sympathy, some African Americans stayed in France and brought their friends: James Europe, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Bricktop. A lot of them were entertainers, who came because they could make a decent living there. But writers and painters, such as Langston Hughes and Loïs Mailou Jones, came too, usually for shorter periods of time, often on a grant. Some of these expats married and had children. They opened restaurants. In Paris. In Montmartre. While in the United States, they had suffered from racism and systematic segregation, they were welcome with open arms by the Paris intellegentsia and by the French at large. African Americans brought with them a popular culture, with a spontaneity and rawness which the French craved.

One story

Eugene Bulard, whose father spoke highly of France, had always wanted to go there. He stowed away on a ship bound for Germany at the age of 10 in 1906 and made his way to France a few years later. When war broke out, he enrolled in the French Legion. He became an ace flier and got the Croix de Guerre. He remained in France after the war, first as a musician, then opening a successful nightclub.

[1st part]

  First glimpse 

While a few well-to-do Creole students and African American artists had resided in Paris, the first meeting in large numbers between African Americans and the French took place during World War I. Despite the American Forces’ best efforts to keep them segregated, African Americans soldiers were seen as saviors and fraternized with the French.

One story amongst many

“…A deep sympathy is in store for these men, which, yesterday, was not surmised. Very quickly it is seen they have nothing of the savage in them, but, on the other hand, one could not find a soldier more faultless in his bearing, and in his manners more affable…”

Letter by a Frenchwoman to a local newspaper in 1917