Josephine Baker HBO lavishly tells life story of 'black Venus'

March 14, 1991|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Evening Sun Staff

BY THE STANDARDS of biography, HBO's ambitious "Th Josephine Baker Story" is very good. It presents for our thorough consideration a poorly remembered yet complex and fascinating historical figure, the American-born expatriate chanteuse who became a European sensation as La Venus Negre (the black Venus).

By the standards of big-scale musical TV movies, however, the $9 million world premiere movie is merely pretty good.

Putting the demands of those genres together, you get an absorbing, lavishly produced 2 1/2 hours of original television. The movie premieres on the premium service at 8 p.m. Saturday (with multiple repeats into April). It also was screened last weekend at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on behalf of Baltimore's chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, in joint observance of Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March).

The movie, which undoubtably will end up in video stores, is highlighted by one impressive acting performance from star Lynn Whitfield (of the TV series "Equal Justice") and benefits further from a stunning array of persuasive period settings (even though they actually were shot in Budapest, Hungary, and not the Paris they primarily portray).

It also hammers away the message that America's racial hatreds have run too deeply to ever give Baker the recognition in the country of her birth that she deserves -- at least until now, when at least two more movies about her are in the works, including one for the TNT network starring Diana Ross.

Yet too often the film becomes mired in the details of biographical progression at the considerable expense of conveying Baker's extraordinary stage presence.

It would be nice, for instance, to see at least a few of Baker's signature song and dance numbers all the way through, rather than the seemingly truncated versions of 11 songs presented in the movie. They're nicely staged, but simply too short.

And for all of Whitfield's skill in portraying the offstage Baker across a span of some 50 years, you never quite sense that electric sizzle in the stage numbers that obviously made the real Baker a hot, hot property.

The lack of connection is not helped by the fact that Whitfield does not sing here. Vocalist Carol Dennis recorded the music, and the lip-sync switch is sometimes too apparent.

Still, Baker's remarkable story is worth seeing, if only because it is so little noted in the short-term memory of American pop culture. And what is usually recalled leaves out some interesting private sides to a very public figure, particularly her confrontation with racial segregation in 1950s America.

Baker was the daughter of an East St. Louis washerwoman. She apparently carried a lifelong memory of the grisly scenes of a 1917 racial riot there. The movie opens as an elderly Baker recalls the scene in a letter flashing back to a time when, she writes, "white folks had no heart and black folks had no power."

Gaining some success as a comic dancer in the all-black vaudeville stage, she makes it to Broadway at the age of 18, but is aware that black performers in America are limited to playing black-face roles. So she embraces an opportunity to travel to liberated Paris in 1925 with a jazz show, "La Revue Negre."

She also accepts, with initial reluctance, the opportunity to perform topless in "Danse Sauvage." The film is not at all coy in portraying this performance, nor Baker's subsequently celebrated "Banana Dance" with the Folies-Bergere, in which she performs wearing merely a skirt of bananas. This is cable, after all.

In chronological progression, the movie takes us through Baker's disappointing return to the United States in 1936 -- although starring in the Ziegfield Follies with Bob Hope and Fanny Bryce, she had to use a kitchen entrance to her hotel -- her medal-winning work with the French resistance during World War II, her return to the stage performing for U.S. troops in North Africa, and yet another disappointing trip to McCarthy-ridden America in 1951, highlighted by a public feud with columnist/announcer Walter Winchell (Craig Stevens).

Later, back in her French mansion, she accumulates 12 adopted children of many cultures, her "Rainbow Tribe," and slowly goes broke, necessitating a return to performing. The story ends in 1975, when Baker died in her sleep after the second Paris performance of a major comeback tour.

By the film's end, Whitfield has persuasively projected Baker's ego and drive, and the film is pretty blunt in showing this was not always good for her -- it eventually exhausted all the men in her life. Ruben Blades plays her manager and husband of the Paris glory years, Pepito Abatino, and David Dukes is a later husband, Frenchman Jo Bouillon.


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