While Oscar talk has centered on movies about white people (mostly white men) overcoming adversity, a made-for-HBO movie about a black bisexual woman’s struggles has been collecting accolades, from Golden Globe nods to a slew of Emmys and a SAG award for leading lady Queen Latifah. This week, our 52 Films By Women club toasts Dee Rees’ Bessie.
Before Beyonce, before Nina Simone, there was Bessie Smith, a blues singer who broke the mold, challenging and changing the confines of American popular culture. Smith rose to fame during the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Though she became an inspiration to the likes of Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, Smith’s legend faded over the years. But this Latifah passion project that’s been brewing since 1992 has re-introduced the world to the badass broad who loved as fiercely as she fought, and didn’t take shit from anyone.
Latifah recounted to the New York Times how this biopic lumbered through different screenwriters for years, how the rapper went from wanna-be leading lady to making-it-happen producer/star who brought acclaimed writer-director Rees on board. Rees broke through in 2011 with her directorial debut Pariah, an autobiographical coming of age story about a Brooklyn teen coming out to her family. Bessie is her victorious follow-up, winning acclaim for its compelling storytelling and emotional wallop.
“[Smith] was a queer black woman from Tennessee,” Rees told NYT. “I felt a kinship.”
Bessie boasts a lot of juicy elements, from Smith’s rags-to-riches rise, her lusty love life, substance abuse, rollercoaster career, and tendency towards violence. But Latifah, with her statuesque stature and undeniable charisma grounds all this drama with a stern hand and a sparkling eye. She gracefully captures Smith’s complexities, portraying an enviable bravado in concert scenes, but a trembling vulnerability in tender moments off stage. And her powerful performance is matched by the entire star-studded ensemble.
Tika Sumpter is radiant and heartbreaking as Smith’s long-time girlfriend Lucille. Comedian Mike Epps is almost unrecognizable stripped of his jokes and big smile, playing a besotted bootlegger. Mo’Nique is perfectly cast as early blues diva Ma Rainey, who served as a pistol-packing mother figure who teaches Smith to respect herself and suffer no fools or white people nonsense. Charles S. Dutton brings sharp humor as Pa Rainey. Khandi Alexander is withering as Smith’s sneering sister. And Michael Kenneth Williams is on fire as Smith’s beau, Jack Gee.
Essentially bullying his way into Smith’s hotel room, Gee courts the rising star with a frankness and arrogance that matches her own. “I ain’t auditioning to be in your show,” Williams declares, his eyes burning with desire, “I’m auditioning to be your man.” He and Latifah share a sexual chemistry that is explosive. They kiss like they’re going to war. Fist-flinging fights are foreplay to this pair, who both keep lovers on the side. To call their relationship “tumultuous” is an understatement. But Rees won’t let Smith and Gee fall into the tired trope of manipulative husband/manager and bullied wife/talent. Nobody bullies Bessie. These two were sparring partners, who often locked horns. But neither is painted as “the bad guy.” And this humane approach to flawed people falling in love hard and sometimes harmful makes Bessie riveting. But an amazing cast and captivating story isn’t all that’s here.
Bessie is not just Smith’s story, but also a story of representation. As a big woman with a barreling walk, dark skin, bisexual identity, and proudly “down home” heritage, Smith didn’t fit the image of “blackness” promoted by popular culture of her time. Throughout the film we see her confronted by rejection on these counts. In an audition, she’s subjected to “the paper bag” test, where a black choreographer held an actual paper bag up to her face and told her “You’re not light enough.” As a white woman who has never faced complexion prejudice, I was initially confused. “Who weighs less than a paper—oh holy shit,” went my internal monologue.
This experience soured Smith on hiring entertainers who could pass the test. She embraced her own “negrotude” with relish, only to be shot down once more by a “race” record company in the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Here she was told she was too “down home.” Once more, she wasn’t the right kind of black. But you bet your ass she was black enough to be the token entertainment of white intellectuals, and the target of cowardly KKK members who tried to burn down her big tent show only to be chased off by a hatchet wielding Smith. Like I said, Bessie was badass.
Watching Smith’s story unfold I began to grow furious. That she was talented was never in question. That she connected to audiences was proven by her success and her strings of sold-out shows that funded her buying her own train to tour in. But all these assumptions about what audiences wanted performers to look like blocked her path again and again. Rees and Latifah had deftly presented a powerful message of why we need greater diversity/representation/inclusion in Hollywood. Because with these stupid prejudices against gender, sexuality, and race in our way, WE ARE MISSING OUT ON INCREDIBLY TALENTED PEOPLE AND INCREDIBLE ART.
Bessie persevered, but her story made me wonder about all those who couldn’t manage the Herculean endeavor of shouldering the amount of racist, homophobic, classist, sexist bullshit she did. What might they have brought to our world? What are we missing out on?
Kristy Puchko invites you to tweet at her with your #52FILMSBYWOMEN picks.