Lynn Whitfield, currently heating up the small screen as Joe Morton’s love interest in Equal Justice, raises the temperature even higher in the title role of The Josephine Baker Story. Whitfield is exceptionally good as the legendary singer-dancer who came to prominence in the ’20s for her throaty singing and her notorious ”banana dance” — a wiggly little number executed while wearing nothing except a skirt of real bananas.
Whitfield and director Brian Gibson (Drug Wars: The Camarena Story) utilize & cable television’s artistic freedom in showing us the danceh the nation should feel profoundly grateful, but Whitfield’s skill is more than banana-skin deep. When Whitfield reproduces Baker’s elaborate stage act, you can see why Baker was such a sensation — she fully conveys not only Baker’s sexiness but also her passion, her eccentricity, and her gift for improvisation.
Baker, the movie makes clear, was the Madonna of her day, shocking prudes but also questioning her era’s sexual and racial politics. Unfortunately, this fascinating woman and Whitfield’s commanding performance are confined to standard biopic treatment, a slow, melodramatic plod through Baker’s life: impoverished childhood in St. Louis, acclaim in Paris, career slump, and then a successful comeback before her death in 1975. It looks like every other celebrity biography you’ve ever seen, and the dialogue doesn’t help: ”When I was starting out, I saw this big box of candy in a store window — it cost two weeks’ wages, but I bought it. The other girls thought I was crazy, but I was born knowing you have to want that big box.” In other words, the whole enchilada.
Whenever screenwriter Ron Hutchinson isn’t using bonbons as a metaphor for life, he’s putting banalities into the mouths of solid performers like Rubén Blades (The Two Jakes; Predator 2), who plays Baker’s manager and lover, Pepito Abatino. Blades is compelled to say to Whitfield, ”Pretty soon, your name, your face, will be in every magazine, on every billboard, in France!”
To his credit, Hutchinson doesn’t downplay the political aspects of Baker’s life — she came out for civil rights, for example, at a time when doing so got her labeled a Communist and worse. Hutchinson’s use of historical figures, though, is very uneven. Craig T. Nelson (Coach) has hyperbolic fun as the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, who refers to Baker sneeringly as ”Josephony,” but it wasn’t until the movie was over that I even realized Kene Holliday was supposed to be playing the great jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet. For all the movie’s flaws, however, there’s no denying the impact of Whitfield’s performance — she’s reason enough to watch.