Decades before Rosa Parks took a determined stance against racism and Black Americans across the nation participated in sit-ins and rallies demanding equality, Lena Baker lived in a world engulfed by hatred, despair and cruelty.
Her story comes to life Jan. 4, 2011, in the feature-length docudrama, The Lena Baker Story, starring actress Tichina Arnold in a breakout dramatic role.
As an uneducated Black woman living in rural Georgia, Baker stood out among her straight-laced peers and families. She works as a prostitute in hopes of breaking away from the grips of poverty, but was sentenced to 10 months hard labor for “laying” with White men.
Years later, now a sober, church-going mother of three young children, she ekes out a living with her mother doing laundry and housekeeping. But just as she seems to have moved beyond the sorrows of her past, Baker is hired to care for Elliot Arthur (Emmy Award-winner Peter Coyote, who has appeared in over 120 films and TV series), who is recovering from a broken leg.
A tyrannical, pistol-packing White man, Arthur is known for his angry disposition and heavy drinking. Over time, the two develop a highly-charged and drunken relationship filled with cruelty and a troubling need for one another. Arthur’s physical and mental abuse continues to escalate and he virtually enslaves her. But one sweltering night, Baker finally attempts to break free … a struggle ensues and a gun goes off, accidentally killing Arthur.
Despite the sympathies of the local sheriff (Michael Rooker, Mallrats, Cliffhanger, Days of Thunder) – who is helpless against the mores of the time – Baker’s attorney is dismissive, her defense inadequate and a jury of 12 Caucasian men find her guilty in a trial and deliberation that, together, last less than four hours. Sentenced to death by electrocution, Baker faces her fate with dignity and strength over the ensuing months, holding onto her belief that the Lord would judge her more fairly.
The only woman to be sentenced to death by electric chair in the state of Georgia, Baker was just 44 years old when she died in 1945. Said Baker before the switch was pulled – a barbaric death requiring several shocks and lasting six minutes –, “What I done, I done in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was, I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett and he has been good to me. I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I have a very strong conscience.”
In 1998, Baker’s unmarked, weed-ridden grave was rediscovered in the cemetery of
Mt. Vernon Baptist Church – where she once worshipped – and the congregation raised $250 to purchase a modest stone, now marking her final resting place. Due to a long clemency campaign led by her family, including in more recent years her grand-nephew Roosevelt Curry, Georgia’s Pardon and Parole Board finally granted a posthumous pardon in 2005 – six decades after her execution – ruling that a “grievous error” occurred when she was denied clemency following her trial. “I believe she’s somewhere around God’s throne and can look down and smile,” reflects Curry.
Based on the book, The Lena Baker Story by Lela Bond Phillips, the film was written, produced and directed by Ralph Wilcox, CEO of Schusters Cash, a film, television and video production company; owner of Jokara-Micheaux Studio, a 22,000-square-foot movie studio in Colquitt, Ga.; and director of the Southwest Georgia Film Commission. Additionally, Wilcox’s long career as an actor includes roles in dozens of iconic television programs in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
“We tend to forget history and believe that we’ve all moved on,” says Wilcox, now a documentary and film producer. “There has been a lot of progress in our society and race relations, but we need not forget where we have been, lest we repeat our past. And, even though Lena was flawed, this film was an opportunity to give her the voice she was denied 64 years ago … each and everyone one of us deserves that.”