Page last updated at 22:55 GMT, Saturday, 24 May 2008 23:55 UK

Execution film has message of hope

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Cannes

On 5 March, 1945, Lena Baker was strapped into the electric chair and put to death in the US state of Georgia.

Tichina Arnold
Tichina Arnold stars as Lena Baker in the film

The 44-year-old African-American maid had been convicted of murdering her employer, Ernest Knight, by an all-male, all-white jury in a trial that lasted just one day.

In court, Baker said she had shot Knight in self-defence after she told him she was quitting her job and he, enraged, had imprisoned and threatened her with a branding iron.

As she was led to her death, the mother of three still professed her innocence, saying: "What I done, I did in self-defence, or I would have been killed myself."

The case lay largely forgotten for 60 years until, in August 2005, Baker's family won an apology from the Georgia Board Of Pardons and Paroles.

They admitted the decision to deny Baker clemency was a "grievous error" and that a verdict of manslaughter, which did not carry the death penalty, would have been more appropriate.

Baker's story has now been turned into a film, which was showing out of competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.


Featuring a cast of strong Hollywood character actors, including Peter Coyote (ET, Erin Brockovich) and Beverly Todd (Crash, The Bucket List), it not only aims to bring the miscarriage of justice to wider attention - but to rejuvenate Georgia's economy.

Writer and director Ralph Wilcox said it was important to him that the film not be a retread of racial dramas like To Kill A Mockingbird, which shares an equally pivotal courtroom scene.

"I worked very hard not make it a project of race - blacks and whites and that struggle in the South - because we already know that story," he says.

"It is domestic abuse, it is addiction, it is fate, it is the issue of the death penalty."

Peter Coyote
This film's lesson is that, messed-up or not, you have rights as a human being, you have civil rights under the law
Peter Coyote

Coyote, who plays Baker's abusive employer, says it was important to him that she was shown to be "a conflicted and messed-up woman" who drank, fell into prostitution and left her children.

"When white people make movies about black people, I call them 'good Negro movies,'" he says.

"In a movie like The Green Mile, the protagonist is so good it's like Jesus. And in a way, the movie is saying: 'Do you know how bad the people have to be to kill Jesus, to kill this person?'

"It's a funny way of letting people off the hook, because if you're bigoted against this pure, noble, uncomplicated character you've got to be outside the human community."

"To me, this film's lesson is that, messed-up or not, you have rights as a human being, you have civil rights under the law and you don't exclude yourself from the human community by mistakes."

Wilcox says adds that it is not just the African-American characters who are painted as complex human beings.

"Michael Baker plays the sheriff who was not, you know, that vilified image that you typically expect in the South.

"He watched this girl grow up, even when she got into prostitution, and ultimately he was the one who drove her to her execution.

"This man suffered. It tore him up, and I think that the moment we start to destroy these stereotypes and understand that we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, we are really going to start to see revolutionary changes."

Director Ralph Wilcox
Director Ralph Wilcox hired many Georgia locals to work on the film.

It is apparent from the earnest, passionate way the film-makers talk about The Lena Baker Story talk about the film that it was a project they held very close to their hearts.

But the Lena Baker Story does not end with the film. Wilcox's decision to shoot the movie in Georgia has led to a project that echoes the message of redemption and renewal.

The director negotiated state funding and grants to make the movie, and hired many locals to work as crew, or apprentices to professionals on his film.

Since the project wrapped, he and his fiancee Brenda Cheatem (an educator he met during filming) have continued that work, creating a nascent film studio in the Deep South.

"We are an area of limited career choices," says Cheatem, "but now we have a certificate programme at two area colleges, and we train in lights camera, sound, hair and make-up - all the disciplines of the film and television industry."

"I've spent a lot of time in the South and, let me tell you, there were a lot of people that 25 years ago would never conceive of calling a black man 'Mister'," says Coyote.

"Now they are calling Ralph 'Mister Wilcox' and they are getting on this train which he has started trying to pull out of the station.

"It's generating employment and revenue for this little backward place which has lost its cotton and lost its tobacco.

"It's an element of the story I'm proud of and it certainly had a lot to do with my supporting the project."

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