Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.
The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.
The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.
Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.
When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.
Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:
What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.
In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.
The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website