In some ways writer-director Dee Rees’s Bessie (showing tonight on HBO) about “The Empress of the Blues” singer Bessie Smith, is a story we’ve seen before, complete with feathers, spangles, and bootleg liquor as the action meanders through the 1920s, but a script (written by Rees, the late white playwright Horton Foote, plus Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois) about a queer Black woman (Smith was bisexual) by an out queer Black woman who also directed is unusual, especially on a platform as popular as HBO. The only other recent example I can think of is Rees’s last film, the theatrically released, indie, coming-out drama, Pariah.
The difference between Bessie and the similar bio-pics about Black performers of the Jim Crow era is in the details. We see Bessie (played by Queen Latifah, in the affable, spirited persona she usually brings to roles–she’s also in good voice even though no one could be Smith’s equal) fail the “paper bag test” a Black impresario uses for the women he recruits to his revue. Smith is darker than the paper bag (as is Latifah, though not as dark as Smith was) so in spite of her talent, she’s out. Later, when she has her own revue, she uses the same test, but this time the recruits have to be darker than the bag, eliminating the women Bessie calls, “high yellow bitches.”
We see Bessie mentored by the slightly older blues singer Ma Rainey (also the subject of one of August Wilson’s most famous plays) and with Mo’Nique in the role we get a taste of the complex interplay of Black women we saw in Pariah between the main queer character, Alike (played by Adepero Oduye) and her homophobic mother (Kim Wayans). Rainey (Mo’Nique is terrific in the role and made me wish she were in more films) at first is a mother/teacher figure showing Smith that she should deliver her songs teetering at the front edge of the stage as she explains, “If you not riskin’ nothing, neither will they.” She also instructs her to find people in the audience to focus on and sing to, “The blues is not about people knowing you. It’s about you knowing people.”[caption id="attachment_21188" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey[/caption]
With these two characters Rees is, again, one of the few filmmakers showing an audience one queer Black woman (Rainey, though she had a husband who was also her business partner, was as out as one could be in those days, singing, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men”) offering guidance to another (we see Smith in multiple scenes with a girlfriend, Lucille, played by Tika Sumpter). When the two singers are relaxing in a saloon, Rainey is openly affectionate with her girlfriend and when she notices Smith nervously looking around, afraid to be seen in public with her girlfriend, Rainey tells her she shouldn’t care what other people think. Rainey and Smith are both presented as sexual, desirable beings (Latifah in one non-sexual scene reminiscent of Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder, removes her wig and makeup while also topless) in spite of both Latifah and Mo’Nique being over 40 and neither possessing the model-thin body type that is the default for most modern-day actresses.
But as Smith develops her stage presence and her great voice (we see the performers don’t have microphones, a condition which favors those who can easily reach the back row with no amplification, as Smith, and later in musical theater, Ethel Merman, did) we see Rainey look warily at her and eventually demote her from a starring role in the revue. Smith with her brother strikes out on her own and eventually outshines her mentor, both because of her talent, but also because of timing. The peak of her popularity as a live performer was just right for the nascent recording industry, which made better quality records of Smith’s work than of Rainey’s.
We see that Smith is reluctant to release “race records” because of the racist imagery used to promote them. But when she fails to be “respectable” enough for the Black nationalist record company during her audition (after a fawning invitation letter the very light-skinned president of the company signs “Yours in negritude”), she makes records for Columbia, a white-owned company, which offers her a flat fee, but no royalties, and features her photo, not a caricature, on the covers. The records become so popular, the Black farmworkers in the fields all stop their work to wave to her train car as it makes its way from town to town for live shows.[caption id="attachment_21186" align="aligncenter" width="580"] The real Bessie Smith[/caption]
Smith grew up in a violent household (like many children of that era) and we see that she doesn’t hesitate to use her fists or a makeshift weapon at hand if she needs to. When we first meet her she receives a scar from one of these fights and we see it throughout the rest of the film, to remind us of these beginnings. I could have used fewer flashbacks to violent incidents when she was a little girl, especially since, unlike the at times violent mother in Pariah, Smith’s abusive older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) is neither as nuanced in the script nor in her performance as Kim Wayans’s Audrey.
We also see Smith’s relationships with men (even as Lucille remains a member of her revue as well as Bessie’s girlfriend, a portrait of, for a time, fairly happy polyamory) including her husband Jack Gee (played by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, his distinctive facial scar perfect for this volatile character) who becomes her manager and, because of his propensity for violence, her sometime protector in the business deals that commonly cheated Black performers. We see both how she should get far away from this man and how his presence works to her advantage–and that she may very well have seen this paradox too.
I wish the film had used more period music (as well as more music that includes Smith’s voice, not Latifah’s) instead of the score which could have been lifted from pretty much any movie covering any era, the orchestra always intruding, telegraphing to us what we should be feeling instead of letting us feel. The last time I heard a score that distracted and irritated me to this extent–while still being completely forgettable–it was by the same composer: Rachel Portman. I know we need more women composers in film, but I much prefer the work of innovators like Mica Levi. I also wish the film had made its center the relationships with Rainey and Lucille (the publicity for the film, especially that targeted to queer women makes these two roles seem much bigger than they turn out to be). We’ve seen the story of the abusive husband-manager before (though Smith’s was probably one of the earlier examples) and the performer whose fortunes fall as her popularity does as surely as we haven’t seen complicated relationships between queer Black women, especially not on HBO.
Ren Jender is a queer writer-performer/producer putting a film together. Her writing besides appearing every week on Bitch Flicks has appeared in The Toast, xoJane and the Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @renjender.