Bessie Smith. The Empress of the Blues. A hard-drinking, hot-tempered, stubborn, fascinating, warm woman, and a singer with a voice that sounded like she knew every sorrow in the world but decided to celebrate life anyway. A biopic of this icon is long overdue and last year HBO released Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, which covers Smith’s life from her childhood in Chattanooga in the 1900s, to just before her death in 1937 in a car accident.
Bessie adheres to the Hollywood biopic formula (including the ‘based on an incredible true story’ line in the trailer): from her poverty stricken early days raised by her sister Viola, to the hubris of the young performer overshadowing Ma Rainey, the fame and adoration, then the inevitable isolation and downward spiral.
There’s a great article on Slate by Laura Bradley on the accuracy of the film, fact versus fiction, and there are some surprises, such as the fact that Bessie really did chase the KKK away from one of her gigs, and that she was stabbed by a man she had punched for coming on to one of her girlfriends. But the film’s downfall is that it leans towards scandal and sensationalism, especially towards the end, making it feel more like a Lifetime movie than an HBO one.
The performances in Bessie make it worth watching. Mo’Nique plays Ma Rainey, a renowned blueswoman, and Bessie’s mentor and friend. Michael K. Williams is Bessie’s husband Jack Gee, a passionate man who loves her but who is volatile and manipulative. The cinematography is also gorgeous, and I adored the costume design by Michael T. Boyd, coveting every beaded flapper dress and satin chemise.
The film was twenty-two years in the making and Queen Latifah was always the first choice for the lead role so she had ample time to get under Bessie’s skin. Given that Bessie was singing during the 20s and 30s, all we have left are low-quality recordings, some photos and various biographies. From this Latifah manages to create a magnetising and complex character. Latifah recorded her own vocals for the film and she beautifully captures the power and emotion of Bessie’s voice. Latifah won the Screen Actor’s Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie and the film won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
Bessie Smith has been claimed as a major influence by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson and Norah Jones, and Janis Joplin was such a fan that she paid for Bessie’s tombstone after her grave had gone unmarked for thirty-three years. If you want to check out the woman herself have a listen here, and watch her only film performance here, in St. Louis Blues. Enjoy!