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France’s first black icon makes comeback on stage and screen

© Bibliothèque nationale de France | Rafael Padilla (centre), known as Chocolat, in an illustration for the Bon Marché department store in Paris.

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2016-02-03

The son of slaves and darling of bourgeois Paris, Rafael Padilla – known as "Chocolat" – has long been forgotten. A century after his death, France’s first black star is back with a bang, the subject of a film, a play, a book and an exhibition.

Hardly anyone noticed when Rafael Padilla was laid to rest in a mass grave in southwest France, in 1917. Few remembered that the son of African slaves, born in Cuba, was once France’s first black celebrity. Long before Josephine Baker, Padilla had become the toast of Paris, befriended by the rich and powerful, adored by the press and known to all as “Chocolat”.

It would take a century for the black artist to reemerge from oblivion. “Chocolat”, a biopic by French director Roschdy Zem, opened in French cinemas on Wednesday. Padilla’s extraordinary life is also the focus of an exhibition (“They called him Chocolat”), currently on show at the Maison des Métallos in Paris, a play by historian Gérard Noiriel (“Chocolat Blues”), and a book by the same author (“Chocolat: the true story of a man with no name”).

'Chocolat' trailer (video in French)

From slavery to freedom

The “man with no name” was born in Havana, around 1868. He lived in Cuba until the age of ten, when he was sold to a Spanish merchant and brought to Bilbao. At the time, slaves acquired freedom upon stepping on European soil. Rafael was thus a free man.

Aged 14, Rafael fled life as a farm labourer to become a drifter. He would dance in bars and taverns, reproducing the moves and gestures of the slaves he used to watch as a child in the port of Havana. One day he was spotted by Tony Grice, a famous English clown, who hired him as a servant and brought him to Paris.

There were scarcely more than a thousand black people in France at the time. Some were paraded in cabarets and human zoos to satisfy the curiosity and prejudices of colonial-era Parisians. Rafael was no exception, though he soon learnt to turn his “handicap” into an asset.
 

Poster for "Chocolat's Wedding", designed by Alfred Choubrac in 1888. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Grice performed at the Nouveau Cirque, a fashionable haunt that could host a crowd of 3,000. Rafael’s job was to bring the clown’s instruments on stage. He would use those fleeting moments in the limelight to delight the audience with his mimics and dance moves.

‘Long live Chocolat!’

“The feeling of strangeness that he conveyed prompted both revulsion and fascination among the audience,” writes Gérard Noiriel in the press release for the exhibition at the Maison des Métallos. “The colour of his skin became an asset, as did his gestures, regarded as ‘primitive’ in contrast with the ‘civilised’ behaviour of the French.”

By 1888 Rafael had his own act, “Chocolat’s wedding”. It was a huge hit. Suddenly, “Chocolat” the dancer, clown and singer was the hottest thing in town. “Chocolat is king, Chocolat is master, long live Chocolat!” screamed the press. The young artist was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, filmed by the Lumière brothers, and appeared in books, adverts, toys and marionettes.

Footit and Chocolat. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Chocolat’s double act with English clown George Footit, between 1895 and 1902, marked the pinnacle of his career. It also set a milestone in circus history by pioneering the classic association between the white clown and the “black auguste” character. The pair embodied colonial domination, with Chocolat confined to the role of a naïve punching bag, systematically duped by the sly white clown. Audiences were delighted.

After Dreyfus

In 1905 the Nouveau Cirque changed hands and the Chocolat-Footit act was scrapped. Noiriel identifies two reasons for the show’s abrupt end: the Dreyfus Affair and a shrinking audience.

At the turn of the century, the wrongful conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer of Jewish descent, triggered a huge political scandal that drove a rift through French society. According to the historian, “Dreyfus supporters were compelled to examine racial issues and the image of France, the land of human rights”. Many were uncomfortable with the Chocolat-Footit duo, which reproduced the “stereotype of the stupid black man beaten by whites”.

Meanwhile, popular tastes were also changing. The old circuses declined as crowds flocked to cabarets and boxing rings, where black fighters from the US excelled. Chocolat was out of fashion. After an unsuccessful stint in theatre he scraped a living by performing for children in Paris hospitals, inadvertently inventing laughter therapy.

France’s most celebrated auguste gave his last performance at a circus in Bordeaux on November 3, 1917. He died of a heart attack the following day and was buried in the local protestant cemetery. While Footit would later be laid to rest in Paris’s famed Père Lachaise cemetery, Chocolat’s body was dumped in a mass grave reserved for the poor. In a twist of fate, it is he who is best remembered, a century later.
 

A picture of Chocolat. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Date created : 2016-02-03

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