The Josephine Baker Story (Blu-ray Review)

Winner of five Emmy awards including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special for Lynn Whitfield (Eve’s Bayou) and the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for TV for Louis Gossett Jr. (Academy Award winner, An Officer and a Gentleman), The Josephine Baker Story comes to Blu-ray disc with all new bonus content featuring an audio commentary with Whitfield, writer Ron Hutchinson and associate producer Alisa Taylor.  Outrageous, shocking, sensational – Josephine Baker was born poor, but achieved fame and fortune through her sizzlingly exotic and erotic performances. Starting life on the American Vaudeville circuit, success took Josephine to Paris where her semi-nude dancing causes an international sensation. Josephine’s life becomes a roller coaster ride of love and rejection from both her lovers and her country. Whether she is semi-nude or head-to-toe in sequins, in battle fatigues or rags, her beauty and ambition ensured that Josephine Baker will always be remembered as the first, and possibly most loved, truly international star.


The Josephine Baker Story originated as a 1991 television broadcast that was shown on the HBO network.  The movie covers Josephine Baker’s life as a young girl until her death and the ups and downs she encountered throughout her life and career.  Born Freda Josephine McDonald, we learn of Baker’s impoverished youth and her humble beginnings growing up in St. Louis, Missouri.  Her mother worked a washerwoman and her father was a drummer who would abandon them not long after her birth.  As a young girl, Baker was full of life and loved to dance and make silly faces which later helped her find her destined career path.

Josephine Baker (Lynn Whitfield) got her start performing comical skits with troupes and later went on to become a chorus girl after learning their routines in the hopes of taking over in the event of one of the girls getting sick.  Her preparations paid off and the audience loved her comic mugging and pretend clumsiness and she became a popular draw.  Her moderate success in New York was dwarfed however when she traveled to Paris for a new show called “La Revue Nègre.”  After posing nude for a Parisian artist, Baker discovers the power of sensuality and incorporates it into a new routine in her show called the “Danse Sauvage” by appearing topless wearing only a skirt of bananas or feathers.

Her new-found blockbuster success in Paris allowed her to finally have a lot of money and we witness her many purchases that include a leopard, a mansion, nice clothes, jewelry, and more.  She meets a self styled “count” named Giuseppe Pepito Abatino (Ruben Blades) who eventually becomes her lover and manager.  While their personal relationship will sour over time due to Baker’s moodiness, paranoia, and infidelity, her professional life continues to improve as she opens a new show called “La Folie du Jour” at the Follies-Bergère Theater which is a massive hit.  Thinking that she was now ready to win over audiences in New York, Abatino convinces Baker to star in “Ziegfeld Follies” which doesn’t bring her the success she desired.  Angry that she wasn’t received by American audiences the way she expected, she fires Abatino and cheats on him just to spite him and then returns to Paris.

When World War II breaks out, Baker volunteers to spy on the Nazis and the Italian Fascists for the French Resistance. She reports on overheard conversations and smuggles secret documents in her underwear and more.  When the Nazis invade France, Baker journeys to Morocco where she suffers from another miscarriage and ends up getting an emergency hysterectomy.  While recovering in the hospital, she meets Sidney Williams (Louis Gossett Jr.), a military man who convinces her to entertain Allied troops which she does after imploring the segregated soldiers to sit together as one group.

After facing her fears about her reception in America, we see Baker go to the famous Stork Club where the club refused to serve her, she notices that the well known columnist Walter Winchell (Craig T. Nelson) does nothing to intervene with her treatment and she begins a media war of words with Winchell.  That war is fairly one-sided since Winchell has built up a media empire that drowns her out and she decides to leave America for Paris again.  One party that appreciated her fight against the Stork Club and Winchell was The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which later named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.

Back in Paris, Baker starts adopting children left and right, irregardless of their race and calls them her “Rainbow Tribe.”  She marries her French conductor Jo Bullion (David Dukes) and eventually pushes him away too when she ignores his pleas to stop adopting children since he knows they can’t afford it.  Once again, Baker has to do everything her way and lets him leave and divorce her instead of bowing to his wishes and reality.  It’s not long before she does run out of money and we watch her send her children away to family in the country before she is forcibly thrown out of her chateau and all of her possessions are taken away to clear her debts.  Time moves forward and thanks to friends like Princess Grace (who provided Baker and her children a place to live in Monaco), Baker slowly recovers and we witness her big comeback show in Paris, the place that always supported her and she enjoys one last moment in the sun before dying days later.

This movie does a good job covering both Baker’s professional and personal life and balancing the two.  As portrayed by this movie, Baker doesn’t come off too sympathetic since she continually sabotages both her career and personal life due to her inability to listen to others or to care what their opinion is.  Even her noble fight against the racism she encountered in the Stork Club and her fight with Winchell carries with it a tinge of self-destruction. Lynn Whitfied (who won an Emmy for this role) does an excellent job portraying the mercurial Baker, especially during the later stages of her life.  She is surrounded by a group of superb character actors including Craig T. Nelson and Louis Gossett Jr. in small roles.  Director Brian Gibson (who later married Whitfield) offers a complex look at Baker that’s not afraid to show her flaws as well as her strengths.


This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks surprisingly good for an older television movie.  The many colors of Baker’s dresses pop off the screen and there’s a decent amount of detail present.  That’s not to say that this is a perfect transfer, since there are many soft looking shots throughout the movie.  There’s also a light layer of grain present which gives the film a more cinematic look to it but the transfer is free from major blemishes.


The Josephine Baker Story’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is serviceable but nothing special.  This is almost an entirely front channel affair with hardly any attention paid to the rear channels.  That works fine for the dialogue which is clear and understandable, but it doesn’t do the musical numbers any justice.  There’s no major audio defects like hissing or the audio dropping out, but this could have been a lot better.

Special Features  

There’s only one extra on the disc so fans of Baker are sure to be disappointed.

  • Audio Commentary – Lynn Whitfield, writer Ron Hutchinson, and associate producer Alisa Taylor share this commentary track with the bulk of the talking done by Whitfield who is very proud of the movie.  She also talks about making the movie and how the movie brought so much into her life since she won an Emmy, married the director, and had a child with him.  This is a pretty good and informative commentary and it’s too bad that the director died before adding his thoughts to this too.

Final Thoughts  

As a biopic movie, The Josephine Baker Story works very well as it covers the bulk of the star’s life and many of her travails and successes.  Lynn Whitfield throws herself into the role and convincingly lip-syncs the songs and pulls off the many dance routines.  While the Blu-ray itself could have been better, fans of the late singer/dancer will still most likely enjoy this high definition disc.

Order your copy today!


Comments are currently closed.