The coming year figures to be very good for Lynn Whitfield and the coming months could be just as big for fans of Josephine Baker.
Whitfield, who studied drama at Howard University, will play the lead in "The Josephine Baker Story," a 2 1/2-hour HBO film scheduled for March.
Whitfield fans who can't wait until March, can look forward to January, when she will take on a key role in the ABC series "Equal Justice," which returns to the schedule Jan. 9. Whitfield, who was featured in the Oprah Winfrey miniseries "The Women of Brewster Place," will play a television reporter who becomes a romantic interest of prosecutor Michael James, played by Joe Morton.
Meanwhile, Baker, the sultry black singer, who made the Roaring '20s even noisier in Paris after being rejected in her native America, has become a television target. In addition to HBO, Ted Turner's TNT cable network has a Baker film biography in the works, with Diana Ross signed to play the lead. Production has not begun and no air date has been set.
Whitfield is thrilled to be part of the movement to commit Baker's life to film.
"I don't think there's any black actress in America, or perhaps the world, who would not want to play the Josephine Baker role, one of our major heroines," she said while filming in Budapest. "She was the ultimate role model for a black woman. She defied racism and sexism and the confines of her day."
When she won the part, Whitfield recalled thinking, "Oh, oh, this must be what it was like when they were casting Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind.'" The part calls for Whitfield to handle the complexities of Baker's life as a singer, erotic dancer, freedom fighter, diva, mother and civil rights activist.
Whitfield said, "From the time I was 5, I would stay up late and watch old movies starring Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. I've always wanted the tears, the drama and the glamor." She should get all of that in doing Baker's rags-to-riches- to-rags story, in which she ages 50 years. Baker died at age 68 in 1975.
The project is being directed by Brian Gibson, who was also responsible for this year's Emmy-winning mini-series "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story" and "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story."
The film also stars Rube'n Blades, David Dukes and Louis Gossett, Jr., with a cameo appearance by Craig T. Nelson as Walter Winchell.
Whitfield, a native of Baton Rouge, La., worked with the D.C. Black Repertory Group for three years. After Washington, the 28-year-old Whitfield moved to New York, where her stage credits included the national touring company of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf." Next came Los Angeles, where she was a regular on the "Heartbeat" TV series and landed roles in the TV movies "The George McKenna Story" and "Johnnie Mae Ginson: FBI." Her feature films have included "Dr. Detroit" and "Silverado."
The special features 10 songs from the Baker repertoire including "Begin the Beguine" and she must recreate Baker's uninhibited style in a semi-nude recreation of the scandalous "Banana Dance" and "Danse Sauvage," polished by intense training sessions with Tony-winning choreographer George Faison.
Monday on TNT all night long comes a stocking full of four great silent films for Christmas Eve viewing. Yes, Virginia, the project is called "Silent Night." The evening starts at 8 with "Ben Hur" (1925), starring Ramon Novarro, followed by Lillian Gish "The Wind" (1928) at 11 p.m. "Greed" (1925) follows at 12:45 a.m. It stars Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts and Jean Hersholt. "Noah's Ark" (1929) starring George O'Brien and Dolores Costello is the 3:45 a.m. finale.
Wednesday on USA at 9 p.m. is the premiere of "Matters of the Heart." Jane Seymour is a world-class pianist who becomes involved in a passionate affair with Chris Gartin, a college-age music student, just before learning that she has terminal cancer. Repeats: Sunday at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 5, at 2 p.m.