The Josephine Baker Story (1991)
Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who found fame, fortune and freedom in Paris during the 1920’s. Despite her colleague’s warning that dancers don’t last, she parlayed her success into a long career while also supporting the French resistance during WWII, fighting for civil rights in America and adopting twelve children. Nevertheless, at the end of this biopic she looks back on her life with some regret noting “I’ve done it wrong, but I’ve done it. I’ve made bad decisions, but I’ve made decisions.” Similarly, though this film has many marvellous components, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Leaving behind an America that requires her to perform in blackface, Baker arrives in Paris to find the colour of her skin is in vogue. On stage she show’s plenty of it, causing a sensation when she dances semi-naked in La Revue Nègre. After a ‘no count Count’ becomes her manager and lover, Baker transforms from mere curiosity to an accomplished entertainer whose shows sell-out across Europe. Ziegfeld Follies comes knocking, promising star billing and no blackface. But questions remain as to whether she is ready and perhaps more critically, if America is ready for her?
Lynn Whitfield, who was married to director Brian Gibson at the time of this biopic’s production, gives a career-defining performance as Josephine Baker. Required to age from 18 to 68, Whitfield handles the earlier physical aspects of the role with aplomb, showcased magnificently by the choreography of George Faison. She is also assisted by excellent make-up that convincingly ages her in a portrayal that gets better as the biopic progresses. Lending support in what was HBO’s biggest budgeted film at the time are Ruben Blades as Count Abatino and David Dukes, who is particularly good as Baker’s fourth and final husband Jo Bouillon. Remarkably, their co-star Lou Gossett Jr was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his relatively minor role as an army officer. Vivian Bonnell also has a couple of memorable scenes as Josephine’s mother.
Yet despite the fine performances, choreography, make-up and budget, The Josephine Baker Story remains a fairly static affair. Ron Hutchinson’s teleplay overdoes the narration in the form of a letter penned by Baker to her children, and Gibson’s flat direction fails to breathe much life into the film. Frustratingly, several key episodes from Baker’s full life are either skimmed over or omitted entirely while others are manufactured or dwelt upon too long.
Consequently, as opposed to Baker’s famed kineticism on stage, this biopic just doesn’t move.
Movie makes no mention of Baker’s first and third marriages, apart from Walter Winchell’s rant that she had relinquished her American citizenship when she “married husband six, seven or eight”. For the record it was husband number three out of a total of four marriages.
Despite Baker’s history in cinema, in which she was reportedly the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, this biopic does cover her film career.