Lena Baker Story, The (DVD Review)5 Dec, 2010 By: Angelique Flores
Prebook 12/8/10; Street 1/4/11
Rated ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material involving racism, violence, alcoholism and some sexual content.
Stars Tichina Arnold, Beverly Todd, Peter Coyote, Michael Rooker.
There’s no shortage of tragic untold historical accounts from the Jim Crow South. The Lena Baker Story (also known as Hope & Redemption) tells the story of Lena Baker, the first and only woman to be executed in the electric chair in Georgia. She was pardoned 60 years later.
Lena grew up with her mother, singing in the church and living a religious life.
As a young adult, she becomes a heavy drinker and prostitutes herself in order to make more money faster than by cooking and cleaning, like her mother.
After being arrested for prostitution and for having white clients, she is sentenced to 10 months at a hard labor camp. Upon her return, she cleans herself up and goes back to living a religious life.
By the time she’s in her 40s, she has three children, which she and her mother (Beverly Todd) are raising together.
A local white man, Max, hires Lena to care for his father, Elliot (Peter Coyote), who is known as an abusive, mean drunk. Rather than have her do house chores, Elliot coerces her to drink and have sex with him. He then starts having her spend days with him, sometimes locking her up.
Finally, one night Lena fights back after Elliot threatens to kill her if she leaves. During a struggle, Elliot’s gun is fired, and he is shot dead.
Lena is arrested and brought to trial with a jury of white men. Her trial lasts six hours, and she is sentenced to death.
At times the film portrays Lena as being more-or-less compliant in going into Elliot’s home in order to make good money. The film neglects to point out that while Elliot didn’t always physically force her to be with him, fear for her life because of her color and gender forced her to obey him.
While the story is a compelling one, the film has a television-movie quality to it. Tichina Arnold (“Everybody Hates Chris,” “Martin”), who plays Lena, does a superb job, breaking away from her more familiar comedic roles. She painfully conveys a defeated woman who, because of the color of skin and her class, must play the hand she was dealt.
Films such as this that are based on both a book and a true-but-little-known story would always benefit from featurettes explaining more about the real historical accounts, which are missing from this DVD.