Before Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Etta James, there was a big woman with a big voice and a big personality known as the Empress of the Blues.
Bessie Smith, one of the greatest blues singers of the 1920’s and 30’s, was a woman whose life story is more than ripe for a great film treatment. “Bessie,” directed by Dee Rees and starring Queen Latifah, isn’t quite that, but powerful performances and a chance to hear those early blues popularized by Smith and her mentor, Ma Rainey, validate the attempt to capture a complicated life.
Airing on HBO Saturday “Bessie” follows the performer-biographic template. A nobody yearns for the spotlight as a way of escaping a hardscrabble youth, becomes a huge success and makes a lot of money, finds that money can’t mend a broken heart or fix a life, hits hard times,emotionally or otherwise, and may or may not have a glorious comeback.
We’ve seen versions of the story applied over the years to the lives of Fanny Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Ruth Etting, Lillian Roth, and Billie Holiday, among others, and fictionalized in various incarnations of “A Star Is Born.”
Still, the basic facts of Smith’s life are here, reflected – or, more accurately, refracted– in the screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, based on a story by Rees and late playwright Horton Foote.
Smith is haunted by memories of a lonely childhood after the death of her mother, Laura, leaves her to be raised by her mean-spirited older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander). There are flashbacks of Viola chasing young Bessie with a knife and Bessie screaming for her dead mother as she tries in vain to get into the padlocked refrigerator to smother her pain with food. Bessie and her oldest brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) are smitten by show business and see it as a way out and up. For Bessie, that way would lead her to the biggest name for African American audiences at that time, blues singer Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique). Bessie becomes a protege of Rainey’s, and then goes off on her own to become an even bigger star.
In spite of her longtime relationship with young performer Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Bessie marries a security guard named Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams). He’s a tough guy and wants to look out for Bessie, but she can hold her own against anyone who might have ideas about taking advantage of a her, professionally or otherwise.
In the early part of the last century, African American artists played for black audiences under the auspices of the Theater Owners Booking Association. Discrimination was rampant for African Americans, of course, and nowhere was it more dangerous than in the South. When Bessie wasn’t working a TOBA gig, she’d do tent shows, like the one we see in North Carolina, staged like a revival meeting which, for entertainment-starved black audiences, perhaps it was. All of a sudden, the tent is surrounded by torch-bearing white men, some in white hoods. They’re no match for Bessie, which makes for a nice dramatic moment, but the scene unintentionally minimizes the realities of race relations in the South in the ‘30’s.
“Bessie” touches all the bases in Smith’s life, including her tumultuous marriage, her bisexuality, her drinking, her first, crudely made recording for Columbia records, her later recording for Columbia facilitated by John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg), her brief flirtation with patronizing white New York society and intellectuals like Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and her sustaining relationship with Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), after she and Gee split up.
But as far as the script is concerned, the operative word is “touches.” One day Bessie’s in a big mansion, the next day she and Clarence have moved into a cheap apartment where they hold rent parties to survive. Yes, it’s the Depression and fortunes were lost overnight, but the abrupt shift is evidence of the film and script’s choppy editing. Often, one event cuts to another without much foundation or transition. Characters are there at one point, then gone. Overall, “Bessie” feels like a three-hour film with an hour of nuance and transition left on the cutting room floor.
Fortunately, “Bessie” has Queen Latifah, and several other great actors who know how to fill in the blanks with extraordinary performances. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Queen Latifah doing justice this well to Bessie. She’s got her own big personality and big voice which fit perfectly into the character of Bessie Smith.
As the men in Bessie’s life, Epps, Williams and Kittles deliver wonderfully full-blooded performances, justifying their character’s love and loyalty to Bessie with every gesture and word.
Mo'Nique reminds us of why she won that Oscar with a big, bold and unforgettable turn as Ma Rainey. Although she doesn’t have as much screen time as some of the other characters, the bond between Rainey and Smith is clear and understandable because of the scenes pairing Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique.
As we’ve come to expect from so much good work over the years, Khandi Alexander is again riveting as Viola. Viola is mean, jealous, resentful, but in her own way, as damaged by the trials of life in Tennessee and elsewhere for African American women as Bessie is. The only real difference between the sisters, beyond their age gap, is that Bessie found an outlet in the spotlight while Viola was left to be consumed by disappointment.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday