Bessie – Review

Reggie Myers

Ever since the film was announced in early 2014, music and film fans have been anticipating the release of Bessie on HBO. 

Co-written and directed by Dee Rees, the film boasts a star-studded cast with Queen Latifah portraying Bessie Smith, who was dubbed the ‘Empress of the Blues’. Mo’Nique takes on the role of Ma Rainey.

Other cast members included Mike Epps, Michael K. Williams and Tika Sumpter who all portrayed love interests for Smith.

Rees has a track record in excellently executing stories of black queer women with critically acclaimed films like Pariah.  Thankfully, Bessie proves to be no exception.

From the moment the camera slowly moves from the shimmery blue background to Bessie’s face, the movie is a well-laid out artistic work that keeps the viewer’s attention from beginning to end. The directing by Dee Rees is superb as each shot is carefully chosen to serve the storyline. 

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The shots also help to convey Bessie’s emotions as film does not allow an explicit look into a person’s head in the same way a novel does. This was also a strong point with Rees’s first feature film, Pariah, which explored a masculine black lesbian who was coming of age as a teenager. 

Perhaps it has to do with Rees’s ability to connect with her subject matter due to her being a black lesbian herself, but either way, it helps enable her to choose shots in a way that helps her not to waste a moment of time.

The idea of the directors and writers not wanting to waste a moment is seen in the execution of the plot as well. The story’s structure will remind viewers and especially biopic fans of Ray and Lady Sings the Blues.

The story opens at the beginning of a critical point in Smith’s life as she is just finishing a music performance as memories of a childhood trauma come rushing back to her. The story then takes us back to Smith’s meeting with Ma Rainey 14 years earlier and the path that leads her on from starting her own show to marrying Jay Gee and confronting her past.

The plot moves at a quick pace and hops along to only the moments of Smith’s life that Rees believes will serve the story.

This leads to Bessie’s childhood being left out or glossed over, and that robs us of an opportunity to understand her whole story. Viewers only get quick flashbacks of Bessie’s childhood as she runs around screaming that she wants her mommy while being chased by an ominous figure that we later learn is her sister. 

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While they confront each other and viewers watch the hills and valleys in their relationship, there are still some unanswered questions. Why did Bessie Smith’s sister hate her so much?

Bessie’s sister claims Bessie is the reason her mother is not around. How did her mother die?

When Bessie has a flashback involving her mother, she can’t see her face. Why is she not able to see her? Is it guilt?

While not every detail of Smith’s story can be included, these are the details I believe kept the walls between Smith and the viewers from completely coming down, even though it was still easy to root for her.

An inseparable part of the plot are the themes and intersectional issues of the time that affected Smith’s life. Smith was a dark-skinned, heavier black queer woman in a time which put her in opposition with almost all of society’s norms. She had to fight all of these systems and the people who perpetuated them in order for her to take control of her destiny. 

These problems often took explicit form in the film in moments such as the KKK trying to terrorize the people at one of her Southern shows, white men shooting at her train as she crossed the Mississippi border and being subjected to a paper bag test by a black male chorus director. 

The issues of untreated trauma and mental health were also themes viewers saw throughout the film. Bessie was traumatized by the death of her mother and her treatment by her sister.

The archetype of the strong black woman is repeatedly erected, destroyed and resurrected throughout the film. Viewers see Bessie grow from a victim who men try to take advantage of to a decisive and bold leader who stands up for what she believed no matter what it cost her.

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However, viewers also got to see the effects of having to be strong in a world that hates you. Viewers see Bessie struggle in both her relationship with her female lover she can’t be with openly and her first husband.  

Viewers also watch Smith struggle with substance abuse and how it brings her to knees. In addition to this, viewers also see the abusive relationship between her and Jay Gee and how it ends with physical violence.  

The fact that many viewers will be able to identify with these issues today, coupled with Rees’s directing and Latifah’s acting, brings Bessie’s triumphs and pain to life in a way that you can’t help but root for and empathize with the character.

Overall, Bessie is an important film about a complicated woman who learned the meaning of strength in the face of numerous obstacles.  Also important, it is one of the first major biopics of a black artist where their queerness is not downplayed or ignored.  Early in the movie, Ma Rainey tells Bessie that “The blues is not about the people knowing you.  It’s about you knowing people.”  On May 16th, everyone got to see Bessie’s blues. Only this time, we got to know her.

About Reggie Myers

Reggie Myers is a writer and communications professional living in Philadelphia, Pa., where he graduated from Temple University. Music, television, film, books, video games, politics, and human sexuality are just a few of the many things that make him tick. When he's not working behind a computer screen, you can find him looking for new adventures, practicing photography, scheming ways to get to the front row of a concert, or scouring the corners of the internet for new music to put his friends on to. @reggieakil