Josephine Baker movie bares much but packs little emotional punch

March 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Josephine Baker Story," which airs at 8 tomorrow night on HBO, is a lot like a photo album. It is a series of snapshots from the life of the black dancer and singer, who was born in 1906 in St. Louis and died in 1975 in Paris on the second night of a triumphant 50th anniversary comeback concert series.

Some of the snapshots are arresting, some evocative. But they never manage to convey anything more than the surface or the flat, one-dimensional image. The real texture and deeper currents of her life and times are barely suggested.

That is the great disappointment of this much-talked-about production: How little emotional punch it has. One had hoped for great television bio-drama along the lines of NBC's dramatization of the life of Golda Meir, PBS' 'Disraeli" or, arguably, ABC's version of Elvis Presley's career (with Kurt Russell).

Photos from most of the major moments in the entertainer's life are there in this two hour and 10 minute film: Baker's becoming the toast of Paris in the '20s and '30s for her semi-nude dancing. Baker as a member of the French Resistance and a USO entertainer for Allied troops during World War II. Baker as a victim of racism and an unprincipled press corps in America in the '50s.

The film has more nudity (front and back) than you probably are going to see in any other serious made-for-cable movie this season. It has a cast that includes Ruben Blades, David Dukes, Louis Gossett Jr. and Craig T. Nelson. It has a powerful and potentially instructive story to tell about race relations and recent American history. Plus, it has a spirited, aggressive and generally winning performance by Lynn Whitfield in the title role.

Yet, for all of that, outside of a couple of scenes, it leaves you flat.

Part of the problem is the script. It never manages to locate the threads of character, belief and behavior that might lead to the essential Josephine Baker.

We never really understand, for example, how she felt about her most famous moments as a dancer -- her semi-nude "Danse Sauvage" and the "Banana Dance" in which her costume consists only of a rhinestone-studded belt of bananas.

We get a scene where a young Baker says she resents being forced to bare her body and being presented as a "primitive" to French audiences. But, a short time later, after an especially rewarding sexual encounter with an artist, she seems all for semi-nude dancing. Was she being exploited? Or was she liberating herself and her audiences through the dance? Or might it have been a combination of the two -- as things often are in life? These are the kinds of questions this script never stopped to ask, let alone answer.

Near the end, maybe sensing that it has failed to get inside her head, the film starts peppering viewers with artificial moments filled with the kind of psycho-babble more suited to the "thirtysomething" crowd than a star from the '30s.

And, when that fails, the film reaches for cliches. Director Brian Gibson showcases the tableau of an emotionally bloodied Baker looking through the rearview window of a taxi cab at a small, black girl. The girl has a scraped knee and dirty dress. She is crying as she waves at the departing Baker, who is literally being driven out of America by charges that she is a communist. All that's missing is the little girl pleading, "Say it ain't so, Josephine."

Still, this is an effort HBO should be proud of. The real Josephine Baker story is one we should all know about and be reminded of regularly. And that's exactly the kind of role television should perform.

Yet, none of the broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC or CBS -- has told this story of one woman's aspirations, the immorality of a racist culture that denied an outlet for those aspirations and her ultimate triumph of spirit. We had to wait for cable to tell the tale -- on this large a scale -- for the small screen.

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