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Featured TV on DVD Review: The Lena Baker Story

January 2nd, 2011

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Also known as, Hope & Redemption: The Lena Baker Story, this film tells the story of the only woman sentenced to death by electrocution in the state of Georgia. It stars Tichina Arnold , who is best known for her comedic roles in TV shows such as Everybody Hates Chris and Martin, so it is a different role than the ones we are used to seeing her in. It was filmed in 2008, release on DVD in 2009, and now it is being re-released at the beginning of 2011. For those who missed it the first time around, is it worth checking out now?

The Movie

The film starts in 1944 in Cuthbert, Georgia with a middle-aged Lena Baker standing over the body of a dead man. She says, "I'm sorry." a few times before leaving. Shortly after, we flashback to 1910 and to a young Lena, who is singing in church. As a child, Lena picked cotton with her mother, Queenie. The farmer they work for, Mr. Powell, is a kind man and when he realizes Lena is nearsighted, gives her a pair of his eyeglasses so she can see better. She also works with a girl her age, Netty, but Lena's mother doesn't want the two of them hanging around together, as she fears she will get Lena in trouble.

We then flash back and forth between the "present day" of 1944 and Lena growing up and look at the key events that led to her execution. From seeing her childhood friend strung up for killing a white man in self defense, to trying to raise enough money to move north by entertaining gentlemen, including some white men. Interracial relationships were illegal at the time (and were till 1967 I believe) which gets her in trouble with the law and further alienates her from her mother. She turns to alcohol and has trouble finding work, which is when she starts working for the cruel Elliot Arthur. Cruel is not exactly the right word for it. He's a kidnapper and a rapist. He believed that since Lena worked for him, he owned her. (The whole Emancipation Proclamation seemed to have escaped his attention.)

The film also spends a great deal of time on her mother, who is questioned a great deal about Lena, but she tries to deflect these inquiries. It's a small town and everyone knows Lena's past in the cathouse and her run in with the law. They also know how cruel Elliot can be and are worried about her working there, and all of the extra time she spends at his place. But they are unaware that Mr. Arthur hasn't given her a choice. So when she can't take it anymore, no one understands it was self-defense and thinks she's just a disgruntled employee.

With a hanging judge, an all-white / all-male jury, and a disinterested defense attorney, her conviction is a given.

That's not a spoiler, as the film is not only based on real life events, so the point of the movie is not learning where it ends, but showing the events that led up to this tragedy. This is a very important story to tell, and I was interested in learning more, but unfortunately, this film isn't well done. It's TV movie of the week quality. The bouncing around from the present to the past and from Lena's point of view to her mother's could have made the film compelling, but instead just made it disjointed. Also, the soundtrack felt a little too intrusive, like a laughtrack on a bad sitcom.

That said, both Tichina Arnold and Beverly Todd gave good performances, I just wish the rest of the movie was up to that quality.

The Extras

The only real extra on the DVD is an eleven-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, while there is also an image gallery.

The Verdict

The Lena Baker Story is a story worth telling and it has some performances worth watching, but it's let down by a script and execution that are TV movie of the week quality. The DVD isn't devoid of extras, but even so, it is worth no more than a rental.


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