Paris Noir: Interview with David and Joanne Burke

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Paris Noir: Interview with David and Joanne Burke
PARIS NOIR SHORT TRAILER from joanne burke on Vimeo. David and Joanne Burke are an award-winning filmmaker/writer couple who moved to Paris in 1986 after establishing stellar careers in documentary film and television journalism in New York. Joanne’s credits as a film and video director/producer/editor include more than 20 long-form documentaries on a variety of social, political and cultural topics for CBS, NBC, PBS and HBO. David’s credits include work as a writer/producer with Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather and Ed Bradley. He is the author of Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light, and creator of “Writers in Paris Walking Tours,” designated as among the top 10 literary walking tours worldwide by Lonely Planet. Joanne and David’s latest work, a one-hour documentary film titled Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light, was released in 2016, and was followed this year with the book, When African Americans Came to Paris: A Film Companion. The Burkes will be the featured speakers at Adrian Leeds’s Après Midi meet-up on Tuesday, December 12. David and Joanne recently took time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions for this exclusive interview with Bonjour Paris. Janet Hulstrand: First of all, congratulations on the release of your film, Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light. I thought it was wonderful! Can you tell the readers of Bonjour Paris what brought you to this work in the first place? How did you become interested in this subject? Was there a particular moment of epiphany that caused you say “This film has to be made”?  Joanne: How to begin! This has been and continues to be one of the greatest “journeys” of our lives. There is still so much to learn about the contributions African-Americans have made to the world. I don’t know if there was an actual “beginning.” Dave and I have been lovers of jazz for decades. Interestingly, one of the things that brought us even closer during the time of our courtship was that we found that we had the same record collection. Both of us had been touched deeply by the music: in fact I will go so far to say that there were times that I felt that the music has actually pulled me through rough patches. It continues to be a most important force in both of our lives. Before coming to Paris we had both been privileged to meet some of these amazing musicians-and were even more aware of them as not only creative artists but as warm, generous and caring people, more than willing to share their music and their stories with people who cared. After all, remember, in America jazz had never been considered a true mainstream art form, like ballet or opera. Coming to Paris 30 years ago changed our lives. We, like most white Americans, knew that Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Richard Wright had lived and worked here, but that was about it. We also knew that the great pianist/composer/arranger Mary Lou Williams had also spent time in Paris that resulted in life-changing decisions, because we were in the process of finishing up a documentary film about her life and work. That film, Mary Lou Williams: Music on My Mind, was released in France in 1990, and several French TV stations, including Arte, broadcast it. One day we walked into Brentano’s and found a book that would move us forward in our thinking about African-Americans in Paris. That was the English version of Michel Fabre’s book, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France 1840-1980. This was certainly a pivotal moment for us, for we now had a book that documented the full history of Black American writers in France. It is an illuminating and astounding piece of work. We introduced ourselves to Michel and his wife Genevieve, and they in turn invited us to one of the many conferences they had organized at the Sorbonne. At the same time they opened up their vast archive photo collection to us. During one of the Sorbonne conferences we were introduced to several scholars who were working on the lives of African-American artists who had come to Paris after World War One. We now knew that there were experts who could lead us into the history of the lives of people we had never heard of before—African-American artists who’d managed to get to Paris in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the capital of the art world. This was new and thrilling information. As we began to wrestle with how to tell this story, Tyler Stovall published his book, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. This was also an illuminating moment. Tyler had spent years researching and documenting a story that we were tremendously interested in finding a way to make a film about. We reached out to him, and one sunny day at Café de Tournon, one of Richard Wright’s favorite cafes, he gave us an interview of a lifetime. A natural storyteller, he held us captive for two hours, spelling out in vivid detail the stories of African-Americans in Paris. We were finally on our way to discovering what a huge story we had. Janet: How long did it take you to make this film? And what kept you going through the monumental amount of work that it took to put it all together? Joanne: This has been a true labor of love! We never could have imagined that it would take 15, yes, 15! years to complete Paris Noir. Why did it take so long? Well, to begin with, we had no idea that we would find such a complex, rich and somewhat unknown story—especially for white Americans. It was a revelation to be able to learn about James Reese Europe and the soldiers who came to fight for freedom in…

Lead photo credit : Mary Lou Williams, by William P. Gottlieb, 1946

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).


  • LaVonne
    2017-12-08 09:32:05
    Remarkable interview with Jone and David Burke. I was just in Paris this past October 2017 and so wanted to know more about African Americans who lived in Paris during this period. Thanks for a beautiful and uplifting article. I can't wait to see the documentary.