Writer/director Ralph Wilcox's debut, The Lena Baker Story, is an earnest and sympathetic portrayal of racial injustice in 1940s southwest Georgia. The film is based on the true story of Baker (Tichina Arnold of TV's "Everybody Hates Chris"), an African-American who, in 1945, became the first and only woman sentenced and executed in Georgia's electric chair for killing a white mill owner (Peter Coyote).
As with most stories involving race and history, Baker's tale proves far more complex, involving alcoholism, poverty, criminal justice, interracial relationships and interdependency. Wilcox tries gamely to cover all of these issues, and if he fails to sustain the narrative through its 140-minute duration, it isn't for lack of effort. He worked from a 120-page book on Baker by one of her relatives and threads a biblical David and Goliath metaphor throughout the film. The drama feels like an endless cycle of abuse, resignation and defeat, with a sprinkling of defiance and redemption to break up the proceedings.
The movie itself is a bit of a David and Goliath proposition, too. Wilcox became a filmmaker a few years back, started his own production company and today is the director of the Southwest Georgia Film Commission. (The movie was filmed in nearby Colquitt.) More local talent came from a crew that included film editor Hunter M. Via of Atlanta's Lab 601, which handled the post-production work.
Lena Baker was born in 1901 into sharecropping near Cuthbert, Ga. She tried early on to break free from the cycle of poverty, initially turning to prostitution and alcohol, which earned her a 10-month stretch in a brutal Georgia prison workhouse. No sooner does she return home to her mother (a steely Beverly Todd) than a local (Chris Burns) practically forces her to work for his hobbled drunk of a father, Eliot Arthur (Coyote). The old man remembers Lena from her drinking and whoring days, and exploits both as he forces himself on her and ultimately makes her his sexual slave.
Arnold infuses a sense of dread and hang-dog sadness into her role, her perpetual frown only momentarily broken by pockets of happiness as when she gets to see her children. (How the three kids have come to be in her life is one of a few irksome plot holes in Wilcox's script.)
Coyote's Eliot is so besotted that it's hard for him to generate much beyond general loathing, which is a shame considering the actor's trademark wild eyes. Booze hangs so heavily over their scenes together that at times it feels like a racist Sid and Nancy.
The abuses go on under the nose of the frustrated town sheriff (Michael Rooker). Rooker's a savvy casting choice; he hit the scene in 1986 as the title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and stirred up audiences as one of the Klansmen killers in 1988's Mississippi Burning. Here he plays against his villainous image. Just as Lena feels trapped between her captor, her alcoholism and sense of duty to her family, the sheriff walks a fine line between community and family pressures. For a man with a badge and a gun, this sheriff is remarkably impotent.
Lena's plight is no surprise. Her independent spirit is increasingly deadened by alcohol and the dual inability to challenge a sexual and racial oppressor. For a black woman back then, could "no" ever really mean "no"?
The Lena Baker Story tries to be a story of redemption and courage, although the payoff, given the results, might not satisfy the average viewer. Baker's 2005 pardon is too little, too late. Perhaps in Wilcox's eyes, we take what we can get.