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.
Chilling flashbacks of Smith’s childhood (e.g., running from her knife-wielding sister) further depict the singer as an agonized soul, the living embodiment of lyrics like, “I regret the day that I was born/And that man I ever seen.” The effects of Smith’s upbringing trickle down to her combative interactions with men (Michael Kenneth Williams, as her overprotective husband Jack Gee, is as gripping as always). But it’s Smith’s bond with blues icon Ma Rainey, whose frigid yet spirited demeanor shines through Mo’Nique, that forms the movie’s most important relationship. When Rainey teaches Smith about stage presence in an empty theater, it’s a pivotal moment — Smith finally finds her own voice.
For nearly two hours, Bessie transports the viewer to the cultural heart of the 1920s and ’30s, rich with luxurious adornments: fur shawls, pearls, boas, fringe and bowl hats with jeweled brims. The music puts you there too — the groans of blues songs like Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues” convey the type of misery that rattles bones, and Latifah sings them convincingly. Though the film is alluring visually and aurally, any deeper historical context — the Great Depression, KKK attacks, Prohibition — gets swallowed up by Smith’s oversize presence. By primarily depicting the singer’s big and brash side (vulnerable moments are rare), Bessie opts for a narrow focus rather than sweeping strokes, but this is more of a missed opportunity than a major flaw.
“The blues is not about people knowing you,” Rainey tells Smith. “It’s about you knowing people.” Essentially, Bessie is an educational tribute centered around a legend’s refusal to sell out. In one feverish scene, after Smith is stabbed in the street, she leaps from her hospital bed and says the show must go on — and even with the film’s minor cracks, it’s a riveting one.
This story originally appeared in the May 23 issue of Billboard.