Queen Latifah shines as bisexual singer Bessie Smith.
By Lucy Doyle
At 43 years too young, the Empress of Blues lay half-dead on a Mississippi road in 1937. The blues community was struck with a ferocious loss (and for a genre that bargains in loss and heartbreak, that’s saying something) when Bessie Smith passed away in a violent car crash. Now, 78 years after her death, Hollywood is giving the singer a bittersweet effigy of her own.
It is not enough that director Dee Rees’ Bessie pays homage to the legendary singer in a lovingly cruel fashion that Smith herself knew all too well. The last few Oscar seasons have given us scant representations of black experiences, and even fewer accounts of black women’s lives. So this “herstorical” biopic is not only unique in its focus on a queer black woman, but in its aggressively unkind treatment of the singer. It isn’t concerned with neatness or political correctness. There is no false romanticism attached to her alcoholism, nor is there any attempt to hide her promiscuity with men and women alike. She deals with thugs, falls in love with bootleggers and vaudeville performers, and is herself “not afraid to go to jail.” Bessie is a flawed, difficult character, and it’s refreshing to see her story placed firmly in the capable hands of Queen Latifah, who makes an easy transition from Queen to “Empress” in the title role.
It was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey who showed Smith the ropes of singing the blues, so it’s quite fitting that Rainey should be heralded as the Mother of Blues, birthing and shaping Bessie as a performer. In the film, their relationship is taken a step further. Ma shows Bessie the realities of life as a queer woman, replete with cross-dressing, flirting with the beaded and fringed performers around her, and enjoying herself without the slightest concern for anyone who may be watching. Significantly, Bessie makes room for the black matriarchs of blues and jazz, giving them a space of their own with formidable competitors, lovers, and mentors. Some of the greatest scenes are held up by lightning-fast, whip-smart dialogue as Rainey and her hard-ass manager negotiate for better pay with the predominantly white and well-off club promoters. The feminism of Bessie shows through as these lioness ladies insist that every conversation, every start of a relationship, is a transaction cleverly disguised as an audition.
It’s difficult to keep track of all the abuse, neglect, assaults, and broken contracts that come at Bessie in such rapid succession—many of them in just the first 10 minutes of the film. The disappointments don’t have a chance to sink in as the blues singer takes each one in stride. And here we witness perhaps the sole flaw to Bessie. Even after two hours with her, we still don’t feel a close connection. But do not mistake this as sloppy work on the part of director Rees, of Pariah fame. When Bessie is nearly raped in an alley before a show, she grumbles her “no’s” and slashes her attacker across the face with a broken bottle (her weapon of choice that appears in a few other grisly scenes) before sashaying onstage while her would-be rapist is left bleeding outside. With one fluid motion, captured by equally sweeping camerawork, Bessie lays out her heartbreak and then snatches it away; no man in her life, no listener in the crowd, no contemporary viewer may own her oppression. It’s hers to share and take back on her own too-short terms.
Bessie depicts its anti-heroine’s life as a blues song: emotional and wrenching in its vulnerability, yet distant and pleased as it fades into static while the final credits roll.
Available from HBO Home Entertainment (hbo.com).