HBO // 1991 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 26th, 2012
Before Madonna. Before Marilyn. There was Josephine.
Made in 1991, The Josephine Baker Story was a lavish "made for cable" biopic that earned Lynn Whitfield (Eve's Bayou) an Emmy. It was the first time a black woman ever won for a leading role in a mini-series, and so the film served Baker's legacy quite well. The story rolls through an incredible life full of historic firsts and wild adventures that prove the truth is often stranger than fiction. Josephine was an early sex symbol who turned a skirt of bananas into a revolution, and she went on to champion civil rights for black people everywhere. Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga were hardly innovators when you consider this icon who built a zoo and wore food as a dress decades before they were even born.
In a little more than two hours The Josephine Baker Story traces the icon's life from her humble beginnings as a street kid of St. Louis all the way up to her death in Paris where she was the first American woman to be buried with state honors. Along the way we get to see her rise to fame, several of the dances that made her famous, two major loves, her fight with the resistance in France during World War II, and her struggle with the civil rights movement in the United States. She had a life full of adopted animals and a tribe of multiracial children. It is an astonishing tale of a woman who created her own world without regards to the norms of society.
The movie works thanks to a fascinating subject married to a wonderful leading lady who doesn't shy away from either the emotions or wild antics of its subject. Even though Lynn Whitfield isn't a dead ringer for Baker, she certainly captures the exuberant joy that the dancer and singer must have had during her life. She is electric, and she deservedly took home the Emmy that year. She had the daunting task of playing Baker from teen to senior citizen, and she seems to do so with ease and grace. Smartly, the film focuses in on what made Josephine Baker so important for America, her liberation of herself and her people through demanding equal treatment. Sure there is the infamous cheetah as a pet, the topless dancing, the scandalous caucasian lovers, but through it all they give Baker a sense of pride in where she has come from and where she is going. Both HBO and Whitfield find what is good and decent about Baker's legacy and refrain from magnifying the more extraordinary, lurid details.
This new edition of the film is a celebration of the film's twentieth anniversary. For the release of this Blu-ray, Lynn Whitfield sat down with script writer Ron Jutchinson and associate producer Alisa Taylor to talk about the film two decades later. This is a brand new track recorded in 2011, and yet they all seem to remember details about the process quite clearly. It's a nice addition that was sorely lacking in the original DVD release. For the first time, Whitfield can discuss at length all she had to do to perform the part that was a high point in her career and a dream come true.
This isn't a bad transfer by any means, but it does look like a cable movie from twenty years ago. The 1.78:1/1080p high definition treatment reveals limitations of the film stock and production. There is an ever-present wash of grain, a low level of detail, and murky lighting that would never work in today's standards of higher resolution broadcast. Colors are fairly accurate, but there is a lack of depth and detail here mainly due to the era of the production. I didn't notice too many digital artifacts, but all in all the disc provides a much softer image than what most people expect from their Blu-ray.
If there's any criticism to be leveled at the biopic, it's that it tries to take on too much of a life in one feature-length film. It flashes from one episode to the next at breakneck speed because it has only a short amount of time to cover a rich history. This leads to some serious omissions and a general glossing over of the story. An entire miniseries would have worked better here to get all the details right, although it is a valiant effort to cram it all in. Baker's demise is lingered on, and that seems cruel considering all she had accomplished which is flashed by in many scenes.
The Josephine Baker Story on Blu-ray adds a very nice commentary to the package even though the new high definition transfer does reveal the technical limitations of the small-budgeted cable movie. Fans will be excited to have this extra, but it's not a must upgrade for any reason outside of the new feature. The movie itself remains an incredible achievement with a knockout performance from Lynn Whitfield and a great story told well with an adult sensibility. It set the bar for what cable could do with provocative storytelling aimed at a more mature audience. You could never do the real woman justice without the nudity intact, and here they are brave enough to recognize that fact.
Guilty of making bananas the sexiest fruit imaginable.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R