Friday, January 21, 2011

"The Lena Baker Story" DVD: A Review

Glancing back at Martin Luther King, Jr holiday and looking forward toward Black History Month, I finally decided to watch, "The Lena Baker Story." Why? Honestly, 'cause I was asked to review it, but also because I really wanted to see actress and singer, Tichina Arnold, play a role that wasn't comedic and totally different from what we're used to.

Adapted from Dr. Lela Bond Phillips' book, "The Lena Baker Story", the film begins at the scene of the crime in 1945 with a shocked Baker realizing she's killed her employer Elliott Arthur, then
steps back to Baker's childhood in small town, Cuthbert, Georgia, 1910. There we meet her devoted mother, played by veteran actress Beverly Todd, then watch Baker grow up in a religious environment, reciting stories of David & Goliath and singing in the church. To see her later arrested for prostitution raises questions.

After serving time in a women's prison, an experience we never see, the prodigal daughter returns home to raise her family of three children. Side note: When did she have three kids? That is unclear. She was childless when she was arrested.

To support herself Baker reluctantly takes the job of nursemaid to Elliott Arthur, a notoriously mean alcoholic. On her first day of work, it's clear Arthur expects Baker to do more than clean and return to her "old ways." Her old habits also include alcohol which becomes the tie that binds them.

The rest of the film, we witness Baker's downward spiral into alcoholism and domestic violence. When sober up or permitted, she escapes Arthur's abusive employment only for him to literally kidnap her and hold her hostage for several days. For three years their volatile relationship continues until one night Baker threatens to leave for good. When she attempts to remove the chains from the door, Arthur pulls a gun. But during a scuffle for the pistol, Baker accidentally shoots and kills him instead.

In a matter of four hours--some reports say six--with hardly any legal defense, Baker is tried and convicted of murder by an all white male jury. She is then sentenced to death and executed, making her the first and only woman to ever be electrocuted by the state of Georgia.

Overall "The Lena Baker Story" film does what it sets it out to do in chronicling the story of injustic, but doesn't give us much insight into her early life decisions. What really drove this devout Christian woman to prostitution and then to alcoholism? Understanding the film is based on the book, possibly the filmmakers stuck to what was on the author's pages and didn't have much research into Baker, the woman.

Still despite the questionable filmmaking decisions, it is undoubtedly Tichina Arnold's outstanding performance that will keep audiences replaying this DVD long after Black History Month.


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