Sunday, 28 January 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Josephine Baker Story (Brian Gibson, 1991)

Directed by Brian Gibson, who would go on to make the Oscar-nominated What's Love Got To Do With It, this HBO TV movie tells the story of Josephine Baker, the first African American star to gain international fame. Originally famous for her erotically charged dance shows, Baker went on to buy a castle, adopt 12 kids, become a member of the French Resistance and work in the civil rights movement.

The film charts Baker's life, from dancing on the chitlin circuit in the American South, to her rise to megastardom in Europe and beyond.

HBO movies of this period are generally pretty good visually, and this one is no exception. The twenties and thirties sequences are sumptuously photographed and the score by Georges Delerue is wonderfully evocative. 

Because the movie has to crush so much into the running time, there are times when the movie feels like a montage. There are beats early on where certain characters, particularly Reuben Blades' character, feel like Basil Exposition. Overall director Gibson navigates the story well, juxtaposing sequences to create a sense of dramatic causality: One example is the scene where Josephine learns that she cannot have children, which is followed by a sequence where Baker integrates an audience of American servicemen who she is performing for. Rather than letting the tragedy play out, it feeds into her realisation of a higher purpose.

The whole thing is tied together by Lynn Whitfield's performance. Even as the plotting blasts through decades, she anchors the whole enterprise: Flighty, brave and terrified, her Josephine is always believable. Despite her success, the little girl from St Louis is still there. This is extremely apparent whenever Baker is confronted with shades of her past -- from the embarrassment of her Broadway show flopping, through to any time she is confronted with barriers due to her race (the sequence where she has to enter a hotel through the kitchen).

With the quality of television today, it is easy to overlook the good work the medium has produced in the past. The Josephine Baker Story is a fine example of HBO's past work, and a great showcase for the underrated LynnWhitfield.


A Thin Line Between Love And Hate

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