A good number of years in the making, Bessie is a HBO biopic chronicling the life of Bessie Smith, aka The Empress of the Blues. Queen Latifah does a fine job not only depicting Bessie’s both irascible and generous personality but sings some of her big hits that add to the overall verisimilitude of the film.
Bessie’s parents died when she was very young so her older sister Viola took over raising all of the younger siblings in the family. There is no evidence however that Viola acted punitively in raising Bessie and that there was this great conflict between them. This is one instance in the film where history was bent in order to perhaps give the story some extra needed conflict.
Bessie’s relationship to the noted blues singer, Ma Rainey (played convincingly by Mo’Nique), also was altered somewhat to perhaps give the narrative a little more spice. In reality, Bessie first became associated with Ma Rainey at the much younger age of 14. There is also little evidence that Bessie and Ma Rainey were at odds with each other and had a falling out over a purported rivalry. Later in the film Ma Rainey is seen to be joyfully dancing to one of Bessie’s records and that’s consistent with an account from Rainey’s accompanist (as noted in the article “How Accurate is Bessie?” by Laura Bradley in Slate Magazine).
Bessie’s relationship to her second husband, Jack Gee (played by the excellent Michael K. Williams of Boardwalk Empire fame), is fairly accurate, culminating in the true-to-life abduction of Bessie’s adopted son by Gee, who left her after Bessie found out he backed a rival singer.
There are many more interesting things we find out about Bessie throughout the narrative—I found the scene of her first recording with Columbia Records fascinating as the primitive nature of recording music at that time (Bessie sings into a large drum) is quite apparent.
Other scenes prove quite gripping including Bessie being stabbed in her hometown after an argument in a club, her encounter with a racist novelist at an upscale part in New York City as well as Bessie chasing a bunch of Ku Klux Klansmen away from one of her tent concerts down south.Some of the script feels truncated as the film’s scenarists provide little buildup regarding a few major events in Bessie’s life. I’m thinking how they gloss over how Bessie lost most of her fortune at the beginning of The Great Depression (did she lose a lot of her money in the stock market or was she also over generous with friends?); these are questions I would have liked answered. In addition, there is no context to her decision to adopt her young son, Jack. You never see her talking about adopting the boy—suddenly he appears at the family dinner table, out of the blue.
With changing musical tastes, Bessie’s popularity dwindled somewhat in the 1930’s. It was up to famed producer John Hammond, to arrange for Bessie’s big comeback concert and last recordings in NYC. But Hammond was quoted as saying much later on that he was a little disappointed that Bessie declined to sing her trademark blues substituting more popular big band songs of the time.
Writer/director Dee Ree’s decision not to depict the car crash that claimed the life of Bessie Smith may have been a missed opportunity to clear up a persistent myth about her death promulgated by the likes of such luminaries as playwright Edward Albee in his play “The Death of Bessie Smith.” It was Albee’s thesis that Smith may have survived the car crash had she been allowed admittance to a nearby “whites only” hospital. The truth of the matter was that Bessie already was severely injured having lost a large amount of blood with part of her arm being severed. In addition, due to the racism of the times, no hospital that catered to whites would have considered treating Bessie, and those at the scene of the crash would not have considering bringing her to one.
Bessie is a well-done biopic that captures the life and times of Bessie Smith. Queen Latifah does an excellent job in depicting the positive and negative sides of the famed singer’s personality. In the name of dramatic license, some conflict between the characters was invented to enhance the story. Other events feel a bit rushed—although most of events depicted are fairly true to life. Bessie is recommended as it depicts an important chapter in both African-American and American musical history.