One to Watch Out For: HBO’s ‘Bessie’

[caption id="attachment_17944" align="aligncenter" width="393"]A portrait of Bessie Smith by Carl van Vechten A portrait of Bessie Smith by Carl van Vechten[/caption]


Written by Rachael Johnson.

HBO’s Bessie has to be one of the most exciting offerings on 2015’s cultural calendar. Helmed by Dee Rees and starring Queen Latifah in the title role, the telefilm will recall the extraordinary life of the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith. It has all the makings of a quality production. Dee Rees impressed us back in 2011 with her well-observed coming-of-age drama, Pariah. An attractive, charismatic presence, Queen Latifah is, equally, an excellent casting choice. But who was Bessie Smith? Although hugely respected by musicians throughout the generations, many of us remain unfamiliar with the entertainer. In anticipation of Bessie, let’s remind ourselves of the exceptional life and career of the “Empress of the Blues.”

[caption id="attachment_17945" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Director Dee Rees Director Dee Rees[/caption]


Born in Tennessee in 1894, Bessie Smith was one of the greatest Blues singers of the 20s and 30s. Her childhood was marked by poverty and she lost both of her parents by the age of 9. She sang on the streets before performing in touring groups. A dancer, at first, she was a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the same minstrel show as the great Ma Rainey, another Blues singer, by the way, who deserves her own biopic. Bessie signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1923 and was soon catapulted to fame–and riches. Earning an astonishing $2,000 a week, she became, in fact, the highest-paid Black entertainer of her era. She had her own show and her own railroad car.

Her private life was, by all accounts, pretty lively. Her marriage to husband Jack Gee was turbulent and she was particularly fond of gin. She broke many of the rules of her day. Reportedly bisexual, she had affairs with women during her marriage. Bessie Smith was sexual and successful as well as, of course, immensely gifted. The extraordinary depth and power of her voice is evident from this following clip from the short film, St Louis Blues (1929).

“Downhearted Blues,” “Nobody knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” are among some of the songs Bessie recorded. Her popularity waned–music historians cite the Depression and changes in musical taste–but there were, it seems, indications that she was on the verge of a comeback. Tragically, Bessie Smith was killed in a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43.

[caption id="attachment_17946" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Queen Latifah Queen Latifah[/caption]


There is, nevertheless, something magical about Bessie’s life and career. How did an impoverished, orphaned Black girl who spent her childhood singing on the streets not only survive but succeed in a land that still lynched its Black citizens? There is something profoundly modern and heroic about the woman herself. An independent woman with attitude and talent, she has to be one of the most charismatic feminist icons of the 20th century.

[caption id="attachment_17947" align="aligncenter" width="374"]Another portrait of the "Empress of the Blues" by van Vechten Another portrait of the “Empress of the Blues” by van Vechten[/caption]


Bessie is a refreshing, tantalizing prospect. God knows, of course, that dramatizing the lives of female cultural heroines doesn’t seem to be much of a concern to the powers that be. This is particularly the case, let’s face it, with women of color. But that must change. Movie studios and television companies, moreover, need to pay tribute to people who create more instead of offering romanticized, revisionist accounts of snipers. The Empress of the Blues’s commanding voice and pioneering spirit resonate today. Hopefully, Bessie will help restore her to our collective memory. She occupies a unique, vital place in 20th century popular culture.


One Comment

  • YolandaShoshana
    Posted April 24, 2015 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Excited for this!