PRINT May 2015


Dee Rees’s Bessie

Dee Rees, Bessie, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes. Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah). Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

BESSIE SMITH'S LIFE and career were short. Born in 1894, she began singing on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee, around the age of ten. By the time she died, at forty-three, in 1937, she had toured the US many times, written and recorded an enviable number of classic songs, and established herself as a major interpreter of the blues, earning her the sobriquet “Empress” of the genre. She had even appeared in a film, Dudley Murphy’s two-reel musical short St. Louis Blues (1929), which took the title of the W. C. Handy composition she had made into a hit record four years earlier.

Smith cut her first singles in 1923 (including her first to top the charts, “Downhearted Blues”) and her last only a decade later (“Gimme a Pigfoot”), but her enduring recordings of such songs as “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do” (1923), “Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair” (1927), “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1927), and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (1929) would influence generations of singers and writers. As a teenager Billie Holiday ran errands for the working girls in the neighborhood brothel, in part so she could play Smith’s records on the establishment’s Victrola. Jazz singer Dinah Washington, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, and rock star Janice Joplin all claimed Smith as a major influence and source of inspiration. (Joplin is responsible for the headstone that sits atop Smith’s grave.) Furthermore, writers such as James Baldwin and the playwrights Edward Albee and August Wilson credit Smith with helping them find their literary voices. Nonetheless, except among the most devoted fans of the blues and informed listeners of American popular music, Smith is little known today. Perhaps the time is now ripe to introduce her to a new audience.

The upcoming HBO film Bessie, featuring Queen Latifah in the title role and directed by Dee Rees, will go a long way toward doing just that. But first it must face the daunting challenge that confronts every biopic about a great singer: How do you tell the story of a towering figure known for her inimitable voice (especially for its power), a woman who was the embodiment of a musical culture that emerged a century ago but no longer exists? One route would have been to find a singer who could approximate Smith’s sound, but in all likelihood such an artist wouldn’t have the acting chops to pull off a marquee movie role. Another route would have been to select an actress who didn’t have the voice but who had the gravitas to convey the profundity of the character. Queen Latifah is the answer to neither strategy. (Mo’Nique, as Smith’s mentor, the blues pioneer Ma Rainey, brought just such weight to her role. Though her musical numbers sound nothing like the recordings of the legendary blues queen, despite being dubbed by professional singers, her acting is so extraordinary that it matters little.) Still, Latifah was willing to do something here that she never risked in her previous films: to distance the role from the actress, the beloved CoverGirl model, talk-show host, and sitcom and movie star. Having done so, she may tarnish her Middle-American appeal, but the increased depth of her performance justifies the gamble.

Ultimately, however, Bessie is not a film for those who are seeking to learn more about the incantatory power of Smith’s singing or the wellsprings of her unparalleled artistry. But it is pioneering in significant ways. First, there is the frank presentation of Smith’s sexuality. She is unapologetically bisexual. A woman of great appetites and greater loyalties, she has both male and female lovers. Her desires are not questioned or explained here; refreshingly, they are made evident without commentary. Though the amorous scenes with her male lover may be a bit more explicit, no one leaves the film wondering if her relationship with her long-term female companion, Lucille (played by Tika Sumpter), is any less passionate or devoted. Such an unabashed representation of her sexual preferences—one that doesn’t rely on stereotype—would have been unthinkable in a mainstream movie even a decade ago.

While most viewers and perhaps some critics will find this the most groundbreaking aspect of the film, there is another facet—no less significant—that could easily go unnoticed. By all accounts, Bessie Smith loved and was loved by poor black people. She never lost her sense of connection to them; they never lost their loyalty to her. (At her funeral in Philadelphia, more than seven thousand people lined the streets to pay their respects.) The film quietly captures her relationship with her working-class and poor black audience, giving a vivid sense not only of her fans’ appreciation, but also of the way this commanding performer stood up for and gave voice to their yearnings. Bessie portrays Smith as a “race woman,” but not the respectable middle-class version that has come to define the term. As Ralph Ellison so perceptively wrote, “Bessie Smith might have been a ‘blues queen’ to the society at large, but within the tighter Negro community where the blues were part of a total way of life, and a major expression of an attitude toward life, she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and man’s ability to deal with chaos.” Dee Rees’s Bessie gives us a glimpse of that important truth.

Bessie premieres on HBO May 16.

Farah Jasmine Griffin is William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.