Whenever Bessie Smith sang, she bellowed. Whenever she walked, she strutted. HBO's decades-in-the-making biopic, Bessie, renders the legendary blueswoman's sheer audacity in several magnetic scenes. In the film's first two minutes, Smith, played with great verve and understanding by Queen Latifah, rejects an aggressive suitor during a back alley romp. In later scenes, she waves an ax while standing up to the Ku Klux Klan and then declines a Columbia Records executive's contract offer, snapping, "What is a race record? The one where they put a coon on the front?" With director Dee Rees (Pariah) at the helm and Latifah in the starring role, Bessie boldly projects the joyful, tragic intensity of the Empress of the Blues, the most elite singer of her time.
The Bessie project, initially Latifah's idea, languished for 22 years until HBO recruited Rees to write the script. In Rees' careful hands, Smith's open-secret bisexuality is explored in neutral tones, rather than treated as a narrative ploy. Following the opening alley scene, for instance, is an intimate bed chat between Smith and her demure dancer and lover, played gracefully by the stunning Tika Sumpter. Given the public's curiosity about her own sexuality, Latifah is taking a risk, even in 2015, and she's mesmerizing and unflinching throughout -- in one long, painstaking scene, she literally and figuratively strips herself down in front of a mirror.