Bessie, the HBO biopic about early 20th century blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937) is a success for writer-director Dee Rees and star Queen Latifah in two unexpected but important ways.
First: Rees and Latifah have made the most pro-lesbian mainstream American movie since Steven Spielberg's 1985 The Color Purple. They portray Smith's bi-sexual history with frank depictions of her attraction to women, shown as an accepted part of the era's broadminded black demimonde. Even Smith's mentor Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique), who also likes the ladies and performs in butch drag, coyly asks Smith, "What you know about that?" Smith/Latifah smiles and responds: "Same thing as you."
Second: Rees and Latifah elude the pitfalls of Smith's biography -- the same potential disaster of most bio-pics about famous black Americans. The inevitable slide to oblivion or death that's usually a metaphor for racial degradation is side-stepped by the film's emphasis on Smith's career and her legacy as an expressive artist.
In many ways, Bessie is a celebration of the toughness and resilience taught and expressed by the blues. Blues truth becomes a defense of Smith's life story and sexual experience. A sequence of Smith's attempt to create a homelife in response to her own childhood misery replays the domestic romance that was also at the heart of The Color Purple even as it keeps alive the kind of tensions playwright August Wilson wrote about in his blues play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Latifah and Mo'Nique shaking their ample selves to "The Black Bottom" is a highlight).
This non-cynical perspective is a step up from the overwhelming unhappiness typical of mainstream Hollywood's image of black American life. The fact of racism becomes an albatross that prevents black bio-pics from also being credible human stories. (Last year's almost experimental James Brown biopic Get On Up is a rare exception.)
Rees, who previously directed the coming-out drama Pariah (a better film than its unfortunate title suggests) turns outsider's perspective into insider knowledge. Her own tough-mindedness is felt when Ma Rainey tells Bessie about the white media treachery evident in a divide-and-conquer Carl Van Vechten Vanity Fair article: "Them's graveyard words. Don't worry, honey. No decent colored folks even read that silly magazine. It ain't for us anyhow. Nigger Heaven? I'm fixing to write my own book, Cracker Hell."
In scenes like brown-skin Smith being rejected by light-skin Negro record execs or singing into the antique recording cone at Columbia Records, Rees imaginatively re-creates social and cultural atmosphere. She also preserves the complexities of black solidarity in Bessie's relationship to Rainey; rivalry with her sister Viola (Khandi Alexander, memorably bitter yet needy); and her lovers: Lucille (Tika Sumpter, a dream girl companion), Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams, surprisingly ardent), and bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps, genuinely sexy).
Latifah's blues singing isn't satisfying, but her personality carries the obligation of professional respect and homage. She makes a valiant acting effort and shows impressive commitment in the mirror scene where a distraught Bessie bares it all. Above all, you can see Latifah's own strength when she walks, shifting her weight with each stride, every step showing her determination (even the 1931 film St. Louis Blues showed Smith had a lighter sway). But if that's the kinship she feels with the real Bessie Smith, it's lesson enough for an era where black and gay icons often lack substance. In her own way, Latifah gives Bessie what the children at the old Paradise Garage used to call "realness."
Bessie premieres Saturday, MAY 16 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. Watch a clip below: