Last month HBO premiered their new T.V. film Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, telling the story of blue singer Bessie Smith’s rise to fame. It’s a production that was many years in the making with one studio and another, and the original screenwriter passed away in 2009. Dee Rees, best known for her 2011 film Pariah, directed Bessie. If you somehow missed watching it or didn’t even know it existed, you missed out, and I highly recommend you find a way to watch this film.
The movie begins with Bessie (Queen Latifah), who was already touring and performing with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles), sneaking into Ma Rainey’s train car and asking to join her show. Ma Rainey (played by Mo’Nique) lets her, and really begins to mentor Bessie, teaching her how to negotiate and to not be afraid of going all the way to the front of the stage. Ma Rainey and Bessie have a grand old time drinking, gambling, and even cross-dressing together. Eventually Bessie becomes more confident and in one performance outshines Ma Rainey, leading to her starting up her own show, with help from her brother Clarence. Bessie is also accompanied on her tour by her lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter) and a man named Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams) who eventually becomes her husband and manager.
Bessie’s fame grows, and she even manages to sign a deal with Columbia Records. But all is not well in her personal life. Neither Bessie nor Jack is particularly faithful, and Lucille leaves to have her own life not long before Bessie’s own marriage falls apart. Bessie adopts a son, Jack Jr., in hopes of using him to help save her marriage, but when she finds out Jack is using her money to fund his mistress’ career, there is a huge fight. Jack kidnaps his adopted son from Bessie’s house, and she falls into a deep depression, which in the arc of the movie conveniently coincides with the start of the actual Great Depression. After living in a small apartment with Clarence for a long time, she reconciles with Ma Rainey, and rekindles a relationship with bootlegger Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), who she had previously had an affair with. Bessie embarks on a comeback tour, and the movie ends on a hopeful note, with her and Richard sitting in the back of a truck, reflecting on life.
I will admit that, prior to watching Bessie, all I really knew about Bessie Smith was that she was bisexual and an amazing singer. I knew next to nothing about her life, but that’s probably true for most early to mid-twentieth century singers that I like; I know their music and not much else about them. One thing I really appreciated was the uplifting and hopeful ending. Having looked at the Bessie Smith Wikipedia page briefly before watching the movie, I was very nervous about seeing her death (in a violent car accident) depicted on-screen. As this Slate article on the accuracy of Bessie does note, the final shot of Bessie and Richard in the back of the truck can be read as ominous, but I was simply grateful that the movie didn’t end with tragedy and violence.
If you are the kind of person who enjoys knowing such things, there’s another article here that you can read comparing the movie, primarily to the biography written by Chris Albertson. But regardless of which parts of the movie are most accurate, it’s an enjoyable film, with strong performances from Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique. In fact there weren’t any noticeably weak performances anywhere in the cast. In my opinion, we can always use more stories like the one told in Bessie – a hopeful story about a queer person of color. While Bessie isn’t always a happy story, I believe Dee Rees’ choice to end on a hopeful note is a powerful one, and one I wholeheartedly support.