Bessie stars Queen Latifah as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. Think of it as a series of vignettes – events and scenes that aren’t necessarily tied into a smooth narrative.
Bessie was panned by a lot of people because of its narrative omissions and failures. I can forgive almost anything when there’s singing involved, especially singing that does justice to the familiar and much loved songs of Bessie Smith. The lack of biographical completeness in the film didn’t bother me.
I thought Queen Latifah did a brilliant job capturing the nuances of how Bessie Smith used her voice and how she sounded.
Early in her career, Bessie came under the tutelage of Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique). She learned a lot, especially how to be assertive about what she wanted.
Mo’Nique was excellent in this. The supporting cast was all very good, actually. Bessie’s awful sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) and her supportive brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) were her only real family.
We bounce around in the singer’s public and personal life. She struggled, hit it big, lost it all, tried again. She tried to build a family and home for herself. She drank too much and had too hot a temper to keep anyone loyal to her except her brother Clarence.
The people brought most often into the bisexual Bessie’s bed included Lucille (Tika Sumpter), husband Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), and bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps).
Between the scenes from a life that made up the film, there was always the music. Always the blues. As Ma Rainey taught her, the blues were the same three chords and the same topic every time. It was what you brought to the topic that counted.
This 2015 film written and directed by Dee Rees was made for HBO. I saw it on Hulu in 2020, where it showed up in an LGBTQ category created especially for June’s Pride month.
I first wrote about his film back in 2015, when Dee Rees and Queen Latifah were in a joint interview. I’m glad I finally got to see it!
Take a listen to the trailer.