Picks and Pans Review: The Josephine Baker Story
Lynn (HeartBeat) Whitfield portrays Baker (1906-75), the black showgirl and exotic dancer from St. Louis who became the toast of Paris in the '20s.
The movie comes alive sporadically in its production numbers, when a seminude Whitfield performs the Banana Dance and other, then scandalous, routines that made Baker an international sensation.
The rest of her life is presented as a series of bathetic posters: Baker as World War II Resistance heroine, Baker as equal-rights crusader, Baker as adopt-a-tribe philanthropist. That shallow, melodramatic treatment makes her remarkable experiences seem curiously uninteresting and wastes a strong supporting cast, including Kene Holliday, Louis Gossett Jr, Rubén Blades, David Dukes and Craig T. Nelson.
Whitfield brings enormous zest and easy charm to the title role, particularly in the early years. But the movie's more histrionic moments—such as one where she finds out she'll never bear children—are beyond her. That scene occurs as Baker lies in a hospital bed in Casablanca in 1942 in what her doctor diagnoses as "a deep malaise." The condition must be contagious. The film suffers from it too.