EXCLUSIVE: The remarkable story of Josephine Baker, one of the most influential female entertainers of the 20th century, will be the subject of Josephine, a limited drama series in development at ABC Signature, with Ruth Negga attached to star as the legendary Jazz Age performer and civil rights activist.
Negga also executive produces the project, which hails from David Makes Man showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence, Emmy-nominated director Millicent Shelton (30 Rock), LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s The Springhill Company and ABC Signature. Josephine stems from The Springhill Company’s overall deal with ABC Signature.
Written by Harris-Lawrence and to be directed by Shelton, Josephine is a raw and unflinching look at the force of nature that was Josephine Baker, the biggest Black female artist of her time. From international superstar and decorated WWII spy, to civil rights activist and flawed mother, Josephine delves into the raw talent, sexual fluidity, struggles and bold life of an icon.
Negga, Harris-Lawrence and Shelton executive produce with The Springhill Company.
Born in Missouri in 1906, Baker started her career at 15 when she appeared onstage in several New York shows. At 19, she moved to France, which would become her adopted home country.
There, she almost immediately found success as one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers. Early on, she was renowned as a dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. She won admiration of cultural figures such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings, earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam.
Baker worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and ’60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the U.S. and had an active role in the civil rights movement. She was a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, and in 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the U.S. by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children. Just two years after making a comeback to the stage, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors.
Decades later, Baker’s life and work continues to influence top entertainment figures such as Beyoncé, who has portrayed her on various occasions. Baker also was portrayed by Diana Ross on Broadway and television in An Evening with Diana Ross, by Karine Plantadit in the biopic Frida and by Cush Jumbo in her debut play Josephine and I. In HBO’s 1991 biopic, The Josephine Baker Story, Baker was played by Lynn Whitfield, who won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special, becoming the first Black actress to win the category.
Baker was recently discovered by a new generation through HBO’s very influential 2020 series Lovecraft Country, which featured the American-born French entertainer, played by Carra Patterson. Also last year, Studiocanal, CPB Films and Leyland Films announced that they are developing an English-language drama series about Baker.
Negga, best known for her starring roles in the film Loving and the AMC series Preacher, is repped by ICM Partners, Principal Entertainment and Markham Froggat and Irwin.
For Harris-Lawrence, Josephine falls outside of the big overall deal she recently signed with Warner Bros. TV, where she serves an exec producer/co-showrunner on All Rise and exec producer/showrunner on David Makes Man. Prior to that, she was co-executive producer on Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., Shots Fired and Star as well as Zoo, the ABC Signature-produced Detroit 1-8-7 and Saving Grace. She is repped by Rain Management Group and Gordon M. Bobb at Del Shaw Moonves.
Shelton, who has played a key role in putting Josephine together, landed an Emmy nomination for 30 Rock, becoming the first African-American woman to be nominated in the directing for a comedy series category. The prolific music video and TV helmer has been one of ABC Signature’s go-to directors for Black-ish. She has also directed episodes of P-Valley, Insecure, The Walking Dead, Titans and the Starz comedy pilot Run the World, which was picked up to series. Shelton’s has TV directing work has earned her 10 NAACP Image Award nominations and three wins. She recently signed on to direct Netflix’s feature thriller End of the Road starring Queen Latifah. Shelton is repped by ICM Partners, Rain Management Group and Del Shaw Moonves.
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