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HBO presents

The Josephine Baker Story (1991)

"One dance had made me the most talked-about woman in the world. I had fame and money and Paris and freedom. I was loved by bankers and danced for royalty. I didn't miss Willie Baker the least little bit."- Josephine Baker (Lynn Whitfield)

Stars: Lynn Whitfield, Ruben Blades, David Dukes, Vivian Bonnell
Other Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Kene Holliday
Director: Brian Gibson

Manufacturer: Laser Pacific
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexual situations, violence)
Run Time: 02h:09:21s
Release Date: 2001-06-05
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-C-A- D+


DVD Review

Josephine Baker was one of the most notable sex symbols of the 20th Century, not to mention one of the most intriguing personalities of our time. Born into poverty, she became one of the most noted women in the world in the 1920s, adored in France, which she made her home for most of her life.

This TV dramatization for HBO covers all of Baker's life, from her witnessing a race riot in 1917, to her start in show business on the minstrel circuit and Broadway, and her move to France. There, Josephine (Lynn Whitfield) both shocked and fascinated the French public by dancing mostly nude, clad only in feathers or bananas. Her eroticism made her an overnight sensation, leading to a celebrated and lengthy career in show business. Baker's career as a civil rights activist is covered, as well as her difficulties back in America, where she made an enemy of powerful commentator Walter Winchell.

Beginning at the low point of her life, in 1967 when she was facing bankruptcy and loss of her home, the contrasts of poverty and extreme wealth are nicely handled. The story comes full circle nicely, setting the rhythms of her life to an alternately raucous and moving jazz score.

Whitfield gives a superb (Emmy®-winning) performance, capturing dozens of facets of Baker's personality, from childishness to determination to humiliation. She is utterly believeable in the role, and her dances are erotically charged in a way that surely must capture at least a significant part of Baker's power. Ruben Blades makes a good foil to Whitfield as the phony count Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, who falls in love with Josephine and becomes her manager. He simultaneously evokes a desperation and worship of Josephine, creating a crafty and knowledgeable, yet sensitive and vulnerable character. The late David Dukes also does a good job as Baker's last husband, whose love is ultimately extinguished by her mania for adopting children beyond her means. He nicely portrays the loving husband who is utterly dominated by the power that Josephine holds over him, able to assert himself only through destruction of their relationship. Vivian Bonnell turns in an excellent supporting performance as Josephine's doubting and resentful mother.

As an HBO movie, there is sex and nudity aplenty, but it is generally appropriate to the subject matter, given Baker's controversial life. Those not offended by these things will be very pleased with this somewhat fictionalized biography, made with the input of two of Baker's children.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Well, this movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen on DVD. Ordinarily that would be a good thing, but not with a television movie that's supposed to be 1.33:1. Consequently, the picture is badly cropped at both top and bottom. Heads are cut off at the top; when Josephine adopts her first child, Akio, her expression is cropped off the bottom. Burned-in subtitles are also partially cropped off at the bottom. That's a real shame, because otherwise this transfer is excellent. Colors are vivid and natural, and blacks are superb with terrific shadow detail. The picture is sharp and crisp without artificial enhancement. No damage is visible except for 2 or 3 speckles. It would be an 'A' grade, but it's very badly misframed and thus I can't in good conscience give it better than a C-.

Image Transfer Grade: C-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There are two English audio tracks provided here: the original Dolby Surround, and a new DD 5.1 remix that has extremely active surrounds. Both sound excellent, with music and dialogue crisp and clear. Range is top-notch throughout. The difference in sound as Josephine moves from singing without a microphone to singing with the mike and back is captured in a breathtaking fashion that makes the viewer feel as if she's performing right in front of him. The Spanish mono audio is utterly pale by comparison, though adequate if absolutely necessary.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:17m:07s

Extras Review: The disc features anamorphic menus, cast and crew filmographies and detailed biographies for Whitfield, Blades, Dukes, Nelson and Gossett, as well as the writer and director. Subtitles are generally accurate, though the word "hinky" is unaccountably deleted. Alas, nothing more is provided. A chat with Whitfield, who really carries this film, would have been welcome here. The layer change is placed right at the end of a scene and is not very noticeable.

Extras Grade: D+

Final Comments

An excellent dramatized biography, featuring a number of excellent performances, centering on Whitfield's moving and erotically charged portrayal of Baker. A very nice transfer helps, but the widescreen cropping is a nuisance.

Mark Zimmer 2001-07-20