|Index||9 reviews in total|
Josephine Baker (Lynn Whitfield) grew up in poverty and, at a very young
age, displayed her talents on Vaudeville. Unhappy with the treatment of
African Americans in the 1920's in her homeland, she travels to France and
makes it big as an exotic dancer and singer. Loved by the Europeans,
Josephine's manager/boyfriend (Rubin Blades) decides to have her return to
Broadway. She fails miserably. Yet, Josephine remains a strong,
person who soon takes her show on the road and turns heads. She also
time to try to elevate the treatment of African Americans and to do acts
charitable worth. But, will Josephine ever be truly happy?
This is a brief look at a complex woman. Her indomitable spirit is brought to life in Whitfield's strong performance. Josephine is remembered for her scandalous costumes and risque dancing yet, as this movie proves, she had much more to contribute to humanity. The performance by Blades is also top-notch. As for the costumes, they are revealing yet always stunning. In summary, this movie deserves an audience and one wider than the African-American community. On the next trip to the video store or library, give it a try. Viewers will be entertained as well as enlightened by Baker's admirable life story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I remember many years ago reading Josephine Baker's biography, and looking hungrily at the photographs, trying to learn a little more about the woman who had used every ounce of energy and talent she had to serve her purposes-and how noble those purposes were. She could have lived a very comfortable life resting on her laurels, without taking the chances and responsibilities she took, but she did not. This movie does her justice, and it is truly a feast for the eyes and ears, as well as food for thought. Lynn Whitfield's performance is amazing, moving, exciting. It brings Glamor of mythic proportions into the living rooms of people, most of whom would never see something comparable today. It also brings twinges of embarrassment to me as an American, seeing the shameful racist treatment Josephine received in her own country, which she bore in a regally proud way. I had one thought as I was watching her in all her splendor and fame waiting for food that was not to be served to her at the Stork Club: How many of the racists who treated her so awfully were foolish or liars enough to call themselves Christians?
In continuing to review African-Americans in film in chronological order for Black History Month, we're now at 1991 with HBO's biographical movie, The Josephine Baker Story. Before going on with my comment, I'd like to mention that star Lynn Whitfield is a native of the city I now live in, Baton Rouge, La. As the title indicates, this TV film chronicles the life and career of Ms. Baker, who rose from poverty in St. Louis to become the toast of France. In between, she tries and fails to integrate the U.S. (at least outside of her shows) and adopts lots of multicultural children to the consternation of her second husband. That husband-band leader Jo Boullion-was played by the late David Dukes who I remember first seeing as the man who attempted rape on Edith Bunker on "All in the Family". Other familiar faces that appeared here were Kene Holliday-who I remember as Baker on "Carter Country"-as musician Sidney Bechet, Louis Gossett Jr. as army leader Sidney Williams, Ruben Blades as Count Giuseppe Pepito Abatino-Baker's first husband, and Craig T. Nelson-who I first saw in Poltergeist-as columnist Walter Winchell who contributes to Baker's decline in the U.S. I'd also like to note Vivian Bonnell as Jo's mother, Mayah McCoy as Baker at 8, and Ainslie Currie as Baker at 13. All these performances and especially Ms. Whitfield's are excellent throughout. The director was the late Brian Gibson who briefly married Lynn and later guided Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne to Oscar nominations as Tina and Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It. Like that movie, this one ends with real-life documentary footage. It's of Ms. Baker's funeral with her adopted kids attending. While I'm sure some liberties were taken in the depiction of Josephine Baker's life, the story flows so smoothly that one doesn't notice where those spots might be unless some viewers had read some of the books about her. So on that note, I highly recommend The Josephine Baker Story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had the distinct pleasure of watching a full-fledged documentary film about Josephine Baker directly before viewing the HBO made-for-television movie featuring Lynn Whitfield as the beloved late entertainer.I can now compare the HBO movie to the documentary"Chasing A Rainbow;The Life Of Josephine Baker".Here is my verdict;Lynn was excellent in her portrayal of Josephine Baker.She played the role with emotionally driven conviction,energy,and grace.There had to be clever maneuvers creating Josephine's character-nobody can become Josephine Baker,being uniquely who she was,but who could convincingly pull-off her character?Now Lynn Whitfield could not transform to Josephine-incarnate,but what she did do was put her own flair on the role,and did so effectively.Lynn sold herself in every respect.The acting,dancing,comical renditions,and convincing-lip sync of Josephine's real songs were challenges Lynn took head-on.Her portrayal resulted in winning the"Outstanding Lead Actress"Emmy award for 1991,so it worked!Not only was Lynn Whitfield great literally owning the role,but I loved everything else about this movie.All of Lynn's costars are splendid in their respective roles.Now I must bring to attention the character of Sidney Bechet,played stylishly well by Kene Holliday as Josephine's band member best friend.Sidney Bechet may have been an actual person in Josephine's entourage,but his significance in the HBO movie may be questionable.He is clearly what I think intended by the producer to be a phantom-role.By this I mean that the documentary does not refer to a best friend aiding Josephine in major plans and decisions,like the HBO movie does.Josephine was an impetus force all her own in reality.However,the Sidney character in the HBO film was not a bad idea for 2 reasons:it gives the movie viewer an opportunity as to what went on in Josephine's mind and also allowed Lynn Whitfield a chance to express how Josephine felt emotionally about principal decisions-all due to interactive dialogue with Sidney Bechet.The only drawback is that it also makes Josephine appear weak and dependent in her planning,while she was nothing like that.Josephine alone made all of the important decisions and plans throughout her illustrious,colorful and sometimes controversial career.The movie appreciably stayed on track to events and landmarks that took place involving Josephine's life.However,the HBO movie leads you to think she married twice,while the documentary reveals that she married 4 times.Even if the HBO movie producers did not want to put 4 weddings in the script,a brief reference statement perhaps by a cast member would have been appropriate.The HBO movie as the documentary does point out her numerous love affairs with men associated with her in the entertainment business.From portrait painters to Counts,and playboys to producers,she managed to keep a love affair brewing.Although she finalized the divorce of her first husband(Willie Baker)in 1923,she kept the last name throughout the rest of her life.Other than the"best friend"(Sidney Bechet)phantom-role character and the twice married lead-off,the HBO movie was truthful.Basically,the movie is about the little black girl who grew up poor in the then fierce 1920's era St.Louis slum region to become a local sensation of the musical dance theater circuit.Josephine and her entourage,known as"The Dixie Steppers"eventually toured the country,wowing club audiences at full throttle.Once confident enough,the ambitiously motivated group took their sprightly talents to the prestigious Harlem,New York night club scene.This place in the 1920's was true testing ground where again they prevailed with rave reviews.Josephine relished the spotlight and also managed to steal-the-show with her jaunty comical antics.Her colleagues called her Monkey due to her vivacious stage presence and skill in the profound art of improvisation.Meanwhile,a rich American-Carolyne Dudley(the wife of a diplomat)decided to bring a group of musicians to Paris.She wanted to show the French what the "Jazz Age" was all about.Carolyne enlisted Josephine Baker as a member of the entourage that was headed for Paris.Paris instantly fell in love with Josephine's stage performances,and she fell in love with Paris.Although stolen by Paris and missed by New York,France became the launching pad for which Josephine had manifested her talents.The best of her prowess emerged when she met a Count-Giuseppe Pepito Abatino,eloquently portrayed by Ruben Blades.He became her manager.The Count(albeit a murky past)succeeded in making Josephine a very rich and famous international superstar.Josephine found herself in the position of celebrity and was admired while exploited both at the same time.While Josephine flourished the benefits of fame,the French audiences generally regarded her acts as substandard since she did much of her dance performances semi-nude.The French basically place the partially nude,and nude theater performances in a class of their own.She consequently garnered labels such as notorious,scandalous,and dark star.Although aware of this,she saw it as part of the show and did not consider herself a lewd person.The Paris press was quoted with saying;Josephine Baker is right for adventure,never respectability/She may be the toast of the town,but never someone to take home to introduce to Mom.Josephine,nonetheless blossomed in France.She then succeeded on to tour all of Europe to become even more popular,while being shunned by some of the more-conservative types of people.Her life and career,were shaped by the fame,money,lovers,and travel as she danced,sang,and starred in movies.Her brimming talents subsequently led her to patriotic real life roles of war hero(Itelligence for the French Resistance against 1940's Nazi occupation),Political/Civil Rights Activist,and mishap orphan savior(her adopted multi-race"Rainbow Tribe"of 12 children).The HBO movie does enact Josephine Baker for all the major events,trials,triumphs and achievements that constituted her interesting life.I can safely say that the movie does give the viewing audience the big-picture.The movie informs, expresses,enchants as well as entertains,while letting you effectively understand how all that occurred in Josephine Baker's life helped make her an entertainment legend in her day.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Controversial to the point of massive historical study, Josephine Baker
took the tragedies of her early life on the run, never forgetting the
horrors of her childhood as she became a great star in Europe and
returned to her native United States to make her own attempt at
fighting for civil rights. She may not have always made the right
decision of how to fight, but you can't help but admire her for
standing up for her own values and the love that she gave to her
beloved "rainbow tribe" in trying to show the world that human beings
could live together in harmony and that color was not the appropriate
way of judging your fellow man.
Research shows that Ms. Baker (here played by the luscious Lynn Whitfield) didn't always have the support from her own people. She sometimes took things a bit too far, especially when she confronted the powerful Walter Winchell (Craig T. Nelson) for not standing up and revealing the truth about the way she was treated at the Stork Club on one night in 1951. Of course, just a decade before, she had been forced, as a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, to enter a fancy hotel via the kitchen rather than the lobby, and after spending time helping the allies during World War II obviously felt this opened the way for her to instigate her own methods of her fighting for civil rights. "Stormy Weather", a book on Lena Horne, mentions that Ms. Baker was offended when Horne didn't join her fight, having to suffer the indignities on her own back in the United States after, like Josephine, become a superstar in Paris.
In spite of the methods Josephine Baker tried to win equality during this time, her story is a tribute to the fact that it does at least take the wrong kind of fight to open a few people's eyes to the wrongness that blacks and other minorities were fighting, even after the war against fascism had long ended. Like she says, "You have to fight for the minor things in order not to have the major things taken away". She made great strides during her time entertaining the troops in the middle east, bringing black and white troops together and proving that brotherhood knows no color. She adopted children of every racial background, destroying her own marriage in the process. So even if you disagree with the ways she did this, you have to at least give her thumbs up for attempting to get the ball rolling, especially after being told that as a poor black woman, she couldn't even make it as a dancer.
There's a lot of sadness here in her life. She takes on a French nobleman as a lover, and her hopes for marriage and children with him are quickly dashed. Her agent tells her she needs more than stardom to find a husband; She needs a title, and she also needs to continuously re-invent herself to remain on the top. Then, there's the heartbreaking scene where she returns to America, goes on Broadway, and witnesses the elitist white audience walking out on her and the critical slaughtering she receives. So as much as you might not like some of the things she did, you can't help but feel some tears for her.
Even more tearful is the scene where she looses the castle she has moved into and raised her adopted children in. Thrown out into the rain with her years of memorabilia, it is as if the world hasn't learned a darn thing about compassion. But, like many other stars of similar pasts (most obviously Judy Garland and Edith Piaf), her falls were always followed by a sudden rise, and here, that comes with a finale where you better darn well have the Kleenex ready. "The Times, They Are a Changin'" is one of the great heartbreaking songs of all times, and the way it is interspersed here with memories of her past will make you think twice about judging her.
Rags to riches, in which Lynn Whitfield's exhibitionism rivals that of the woman she portrays. Whitfield fills her character with purpose and determination, and her feud with Walter Winchell is well done. However the routine showbiz bio formula is hard to enliven. I love the stuff about her adopted children (what a great way to spend a fortune!) but it was more touching as described in the documentary "Chasing a Rainbow."
Some outstanding performances here by Whitfield, Blades, Gossett, and
others in this overly long biography of an important, outspoken, and
controversial African American woman, who was years ahead of her time.
It was quite a revelation to see how African Americans were treated in
St. Louis and in New York in the decades before the civil rights
advances of the 50's and 60's. We all know about the history of the
South, but in many places up North, things were nearly as difficult for
minorities in the 1930's and 40's.
The story of Josephine Baker had to be told since so many of us are not familiar with her achievements. And HBO and the cast did an outstanding job doing so. The movie was entertaining and sexual, eye-opening and thought provoking. It covered American society as well as French and even gave us some insights into Josephine's heroics and patriotism during WWII and her push for equality of the races in the U.S. military. I would have preferred to see the movie end while Josephine was at the top and still young, rather than drag on with her numerous adoptions and comeback attempts. That's why it was not a major motion picture.....too long and drawn out for theater audiences.
A good movie to watch at home while putting away the laundry or brushing the dog.
This is certainly a well-intentioned movie, and the star, Lynn
Whitfield, certainly gives a very moving performance. Much of the movie
focuses on Baker's career after the War, where she becomes involved in
the civil rights movement. It's very well-meaning, certainly, but not
the part of her life and career that interests me, so I found that that
part of the movie dragged. Her years in Paris as a performer in the
1920s and 30s get short shrift, and that's a shame, because it's what
made a star of her.
The movie takes its particular stance on how Baker saw her early Paris performances. While it's an interesting interpretation - very sincere - I don't know how accurate it is. The one aspect of Baker's performances that doesn't get developed in this movie is her role as a comedian. In certain ways, she was something of a Black Fanny Brice. Something of that comes through her early newsreels, but it's missing from the way Ms. Whitfield was directed to portray Baker.
In the end, for me, this amounted to a very fine performance by Whitfield. But how accurate a depiction of Baker it provided, at least for her early years as a successful performer, I don't know.
I enjoyed this movie but felt there was one major problem that
prevented it from being an even better film. Even though Baker was VERY
famous for her semi-nude dancing in France in the early 20th Century,
showing these nude dances in the film make this a poor choice to show
kids. And, the problem is, this is EXACTLY the audience that could
really benefit from learning about Miss Baker. In other words, how can
kids learn about a great African-American if their parents tell them
they can't see the film because of its "high boobie quotient"? If they
had used a few photographic techniques, they could have made this a PG
movie and appropriate for all.
Apart from this, the movie is very competently made. The acting and direction are fine. Give it a try and then try to get a copy of ZOU ZOU--a film actually starring Josephine Baker. Then, you can compare the bio with the real lady.
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