The film manages to catch the key points of her life: early vaudeville gigs in the U.S. as a very young girl, notoriety as an exotic dancer in 1920's Paris, rise to major world stardom in the late 20's/early 30's, disastrous return to the U.S. entertainment circuit in the late 30's, French Resistance war hero, a near-fatality from peritonitis, entertainer of U.S. troops in North Africa, post-war civil rights champion back in the U.S., loving mother of a dozen, adopted, multi-racial children on her French estate, financial destitution in the late 60's, and resurrection in the 70's with the help of Prince and Princess Rainier of Monaco.
Since TJBS covers so many decades and events in such short a time, much is lost: the marriage to her first and third husbands (Willie Wells and Jean Lion respectively), her brief film career, her stint as a Red Cross nurse after the Nazi occupation of Belgium, her many legal imbroglios, her late-life relationship with American artist Robert Brady, and her presence in the 1963 Washington D.C. civil rights march led by Martin Luther King. Sometimes the viewer feels shortchanged, as when the scene shifts from late 30's New York to wartime France to 1942 North Africa in the blink of an eye. (Don't go to the kitchen for that pastrami sandwich and beer - you may miss something.)
The gorgeous Whitfield is sparkling as Josephine, who's always driven to rise above her skin color, and, during different periods of her life, either manipulated or manipulative, selfish or generous, and insensitive or loving. And HBO doesn't shrink from depicting Baker's most notorious and exotic routine, the Jungle Banana Dance, in which she performs naked except for a girdle of bananas around her loins. We're talking full-frontal, topless, nudity here (which scores high in my book, Male Pig that I am).
Perhaps the best feature of the movie is its emphasis on Baker's relationship, from 1926 to 1936, with the Sicilian Pepito Abatino (Ruben Blades), who styled himself a "count" and served as Josephine's lover and manager. If the script is to be believed, it was his persistent effort and canniness that transformed Josephine from a simple cabaret dancer to world class star by pushing her to diversify her talent. In any case, the majority of the Web bios of Baker that I've read don't give Abatino the credit he's apparently due, much less even mention him at all.
David Dukes is excellent as jazz bandleader Jo Boullion, Josephine's fourth husband, who separated from her in 1957 after ten years of marriage, ostensibly due to her extravagant lifestyle and penchant for adopting every homeless child that she stumbled across.
Despite its occasional unevenness, THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY is both excellent entertainment and an instructive piece about a scintillating entertainer virtually forgotten by large chunks of the American public.