Before Madonna, before Marilyn, there was Josephine. Outrageous, shocking, sensational, she travelled the world to become one of the most loved, truly international stars. ' 'Sizzling hot.' ' (USA Today) ' 'A knockout!' ' ... more »(Washington Post)« less
"THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY is a fast-forward, 2-hour plus life synopsis of the celebrated black entertainer from 1917, when she was eleven and running from murderous racial violence in St. Louis, to her death in 1975 in Paris. Lynn Whitfield stars in this HBO production.The film manages to catch the key points of her life: early vaudeville gigs in the U.S. as a very young girl, notoriety as an exotic dancer in 1920's Paris, rise to major world stardom in the late 20's/early 30's, disastrous return to the U.S. entertainment circuit in the late 30's, French Resistance war hero, a near-fatality from peritonitis, entertainer of U.S. troops in North Africa, post-war civil rights champion back in the U.S., loving mother of a dozen, adopted, multi-racial children on her French estate, financial destitution in the late 60's, and resurrection in the 70's with the help of Prince and Princess Rainier of Monaco.Since TJBS covers so many decades and events in such short a time, much is lost: the marriage to her first and third husbands (Willie Wells and Jean Lion respectively), her brief film career, her stint as a Red Cross nurse after the Nazi occupation of Belgium, her many legal imbroglios, her late-life relationship with American artist Robert Brady, and her presence in the 1963 Washington D.C. civil rights march led by Martin Luther King. Sometimes the viewer feels shortchanged, as when the scene shifts from late 30's New York to wartime France to 1942 North Africa in the blink of an eye. (Don't go to the kitchen for that pastrami sandwich and beer - you may miss something.)The gorgeous Whitfield is sparkling as Josephine, who's always driven to rise above her skin color, and, during different periods of her life, either manipulated or manipulative, selfish or generous, and insensitive or loving. And HBO doesn't shrink from depicting Baker's most notorious and exotic routine, the Jungle Banana Dance, in which she performs naked except for a girdle of bananas around her loins. We're talking full-frontal, topless, nudity here (which scores high in my book, Male Pig that I am). Perhaps the best feature of the movie is its emphasis on Baker's relationship, from 1926 to 1936, with the Sicilian Pepito Abatino (Ruben Blades), who styled himself a "count" and served as Josephine's lover and manager. If the script is to be believed, it was his persistent effort and canniness that transformed Josephine from a simple cabaret dancer to world class star by pushing her to diversify her talent. In any case, the majority of the Web bios of Baker that I've read don't give Abatino the credit he's apparently due, much less even mention him at all.David Dukes is excellent as jazz bandleader Jo Boullion, Josephine's fourth husband, who separated from her in 1957 after ten years of marriage, ostensibly due to her extravagant lifestyle and penchant for adopting every homeless child that she stumbled across.Despite its occasional unevenness, THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY is both excellent entertainment and an instructive piece about a scintillating entertainer virtually forgotten by large chunks of the American public."
A movie I rented for a naughty reason
Tim | Cambria Heights, NY United States | 09/25/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I had ignored this movie on the rental shelf many times, thinking that it would be a very boreing bio about a forgotten old actress. Then one day I examined the pictures on the box and notices the star wearing the sexy "banana suit". So of-course, I rented it immediately !
It turned out to be a beautiful movie about the life of a fallen angel/fallen hero. It shows you how she became one of the richest black women in showbusiness, a member of the resistance in World War 2, and a fighter for civil rights.
I noticed a lot of symbolism in this movie. Like during the first 5 minutes of the movie, she does her provacative topless night dance. If you look really deep, you won't just focus on her body....what you will begin to focus on is HER EYES, her wild untameable eyes. During her life she was untameable, always fighting, not willing to giveup.
The star Lynn Whitfield is very entoxicating. If you're a guy, she'll make you forget all about Hally Berry."
Beautiful Cinamatic masterpiece
Ahlaiah Toney | Las Vegas, NV USA | 04/13/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There are very few times that a movie can hold a flame to the life of the actual person that is intended to be portrayed but this movie does just that. It gives the ultimate respect and dignity that an artist of this calibur truly deserves. Her life is artfully displayed through from her turbulant rise to fame to her rocky downfall. It is a movie that can be enjoyed on all too many levels and should be marked as an ethereal masterpiece."
Beautifully acted piece of fiction
J. Daniels | 05/17/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Any time a movie is made about a real person, there will be complaints that certain things are not correct. We all know that events get changed, rearranged or omitted for the sake of moving a story along. But this isn't a complaint about small details being omitted or changed. This is a complaint about a story that is barely true.
I assume that Josephine's story was rewritten to make her a more likable person. By many accounts, she was both barely tolerable and extremely lovable, both brilliant and self-destructive, loving to a point of fault and downright disloyal, extremely insightful and downright delusional. Baker showed strong signs of what we now know is bipolar disorder. But rather than showing us the story of a woman whose inner demons and manic depression nearly swallowed her whole, we get poor, poor Josephine constantly falling victim to a series of unfortunate events and being blacklisted because of her participation in the civil rights movement. Nothing is ever Josephine's fault - not her exile from the United States (thanks to her pro-communist comments), nor her failed marriages (to men whom she abused and were abusive in return), nor her eventually losing Les Milandes (which was saved on four separate occasions before finally being sold).
Additionally, this film suggests that Baker was driven by racism and the desire to prove to a Jim Crow America that a black woman could be as successful and beloved as a white woman. I'm sure this was partially true. However, Baker had an streak of self-hatred in her, best evidenced by the constant changing of her father's race to depict herself as being biracial. (At one point, she went on record as saying he was a Spanish Jew.) Josephine despised light skinned blacks (possibly out of jealousy), shunned dating men of color (except for her first two husbands, whom she left and later denied existed), and rarely patronized African-American businesses until the U.S. government had all but deported her due to her fierce anti-American statements. One has to wonder if her sudden leap into the civil rights movement was spurned by her suddenly becoming persona non grata in the United States. Ironically, Baker had virtually nothing to say about the poor treatment of French Africans in her own country, possibly because there was no publicity in it.
Baker's relationships with husbands Abatino and Boulliard, husbands three and five, are misrepresented to the point of parody. Her film career, along with her pre-Paris career, is completely ignored. Her role in the civil rights movement, along with the Resistance, is so understated that it's offensive. Additionally - and this is why this film is a beautiful failure - there is little depiction of Josephine's hard work, insight, intelligence and drive. This film shows us an interracial version of "My Fair Lady," with Pepito more or less shaping the performer that Baker became. In fact, nearly all of Baker's success is due to whites in this movie, completely omitting the numerous African-Americans who worked so hard with and for Baker. Even Baker's family, who lived with Baker in France (brother Richard and his children, along with sister Margaret), are conspicuously absent from this film.
This isn't to say that the film should have trashed Baker, or portrayed her as a self-loathing loony bird who just so happened to sing and dance. Rather, I wish it had shown us a more multifacted character, a perpetual phoenix who spent her entire career destroying herself just to rise again, stronger and hotter than ever. There is no question that Whitfield deserved her Emmy award, but Josephine deserved more than what this movie gave her. TJBS is largely panned among Josephine Baker fans, with good reason. If you want to watch a wonderfully acted movie about a half naked, booty-shaking singer, this movie is fine. If you want to know about a legend whose work still impacts the entertainment industry over 30 years after her death, look elsewhere."
A life worth remembering
Sarah Bellum | Dublin, OH United States | 08/18/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Buoyed by a strong performance from Lynn Whitfield, this HBO film touches on the highlights of La Baker's career and life. Since I didn't know much about her life, most everything in the film was new to me. Even though it doesn't delve too deeply into any one area, we experience her childhood motivations, marriage tribulations, career successes and love of children. We also get some distinct impressions that she left the United States for France because the racism and oppression in the US were unbearable. Apparently being African-American qualified her to entertain folks, but not to enter by the same door or eat at the same tables as them. She married a Caucasian, "no `count Count" from Italy and adopted a "rainbow" of children from around the world. Throughout her life, she sought to break down racial barriers and fight racism in her own, not insignificant way. While she will be remembered as an exotic dancer, it is her struggle with racism on which this film justifiably focuses. HBO seems to have a knack for making above-average biopics that probably would not stand a chance in theaters. This stands alongside "Gia," "Norma Jean and Marilyn," and others as a well-made chronicle of a life well worth remembering."