By Charles Hallman
As a young girl in the early 1900s, Lena Baker and her mother pick cotton in rural Cuthbert, Georgia. Much to the chagrin of her mom, Baker later began working as a prostitute because she wanted to move north, but was arrested and sentenced to 10 months’ hard labor. She returned home forever changed.
Now sober and a mother of three young children, Baker reunites and works with her mother doing laundry and housekeeping. When she is hired to care for Elliot Arthur, a tyrannical White man recovering from a broken leg, Baker once again finds herself in a bad situation. After a physical and mental abusive ordeal, she tries to break free and accidentally kills Arthur while struggling with him and his gun.
Convicted of murder in a trial that lasted less than four hours, Baker became the only woman ever put to death by electrocution in Georgia in 1945 at age 44. Sixty years after her death, Baker was granted a pardon posthumously.
Based on the book The Lena Baker Story by Lela Bond Phillips, Ralph Wilcox wrote, produced and directed The Lena Baker Story, a feature-length docudrama which will be released on DVD on January 4. Barnholtz Entertainment/Lionsgate Entertainment is the film’s distributor.
“I know it was a story that needed to be told,” asserts Wilcox. “Like so many other people, I didn’t know about Lena Baker.”
Baker’s life and death wasn’t a deep dark family secret, added her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry. “That’s my grandfather’s sister,” he said proudly, adding that he first learned about her when he was around age three or four. “People don’t want to talk about a lot of things, even in the town [of Cuthbert].”
As an adult, he searched for answers, and after almost four years of research, he presented his case for clemency to state officials, who finally granted Baker a pardon in 2005. Curry said, “First of all, I am proud of Lena Baker being my aunt [and] not because she was electrocuted. The State of Georgia knew it was wrong not to give [clemency] to her when they were trying her for murder.”
Baker’s unmarked grave was discovered in a church cemetery in 1998, and a modest headstone was purchased by the congregation. A new headstone will be dedicated on January 12 at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Cuthbert, Georgia, where Baker once attended.
Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris and Martin) plays Baker in an award-deserving, dramatic breakout performance. “I really didn’t know her prior to the film,” admits Wilcox.
More known for her comedic roles, Wilcox says of Arnold, “Hollywood is typical for stereotyping actors and actresses in certain areas. I had a whole lot of names and personalities thrown at me — some were bigger names than Tichina Arnold.” He added that if the movie had been produced by a larger production company, “She may not have gotten the role, because studios tend to look at the box office potential rather than the artistic honesty.
“I knew that although she had been pigeonholed into this comedic genre, I knew [Arnold] could get there. I told her to just trust me to take [her] to a place that may not be familiar [to her],” says Wilcox.
The cast also includes Beverly Todd, Peter Coyote and Michael Rooker.
“I don’t care whose story you do, whether they’re passed [away] or still are alive, you try to tell the best story you can,” adds Wilcox on making The Lena Baker Story. “I work very, very hard to make sure that I treated a lot of the allegations as carefully as I could. Even though it happened back in the 1940s, there’s so much about Lena’s life that is still very contemporary today when you deal with the issues of the death penalty, faith, abuse and addiction.”
A longtime actor who has 14 motion picture roles to his credit, including the Diahann Carroll/James Earl Jones 1974 classic Claudine, as well as TV movies and series appearances in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Wilcox spent seven years producing documentaries in Africa. “I would say divine providence” brought him to southwest Georgia, where he built Jokara-Michaeaux Studio, a 22,000-square-foot movie studio in Colquitt, Georgia as well as Schusters Cash, a film, television and video production company, he says.
“I really wanted to create training for young people as a tool for vocal empowerment, training young people in all the disciplines of this industry: sound, lights, makeup, scriptwriting, acting coaching and set construction. I’ve always been involved in some capacity of teaching,” says Wilcox. “I’ve been working in front of the camera for a number of years, but as I got older, I was at that place where it was time for me to evolve and take on this monumental task of creating.
“I feel very confident that I got as close as I could in honoring a woman who was going through her struggles,” surmises Wilcox. “There were so many things going on [in her life] that in many instances were out of her control — things that she could not help.
“This experience of introducing this historical figure has enriched me tremendously in my life,” the actor-writer-producer-director concludes.
For information on how to purchase the DVD, go to www.lenabakerthemovie.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]