Bessie

‘Bessie’: Unapologetically Black, Female, and Queer

The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. Mood:Indigo

‘Bessie’ is one of the rare mainstream films that shows an unapologetically Black, female and queer protagonist. That alone is groundbreaking in an otherwise straightforward biopic.

‘Bessie’: A Mainstream Portrait of Black Queer Women by a Black Queer Woman

bessieHBOCover

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.”

Mo’Nique Returns to the Spotlight in ‘Bessie’

Mo'Nique

The film also focuses on the relationship between Smith and Ma Rainey, who mentored Smith and gave her guidance on developing her stagecraft. Mo’Nique portrays Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” in a rich and layered performance and has so much charisma she steals every scene she’s in.

One to Watch Out For: HBO’s ‘Bessie’

A portrait of Bessie Smith by Carl van Vechten

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.

One to Watch Out For: HBO’s ‘Bessie’

A portrait of Bessie Smith by Carl van Vechten

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.