'Bessie': TV Review

Frank Masi/HBO
A restrained but vivid and satisfying portrait

Queen Latifah stars in this HBO biopic chronicling the career ups and downs, as well as the stormy personal life, of the Empress of the Blues.

In her eloquent 2009 debut feature Pariah, director Dee Rees explored the complicated paths of love, identity and personal freedom for a young African-American Brooklyn lesbian. That same intimate focus is beamed onto a much bigger canvas in Bessie, an unvarnished but admiring portrait of influential blues singer Bessie Smith, who overcame discrimination and an abusive childhood to achieve enormous popularity in the 1920s and '30s. Playing “the Empress of the Blues” has been a passion project for Queen Latifah since early in her acting career, and that commitment informs a raw, gutsy performance that embraces the fierce contradictions of this combative, charismatic woman.

The project began 22 years ago as a screen treatment by the late playwright Horton Foote, to be produced by Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck; they remain on board as executive producers, along with Latifah and producing partner Shakim Compere. Rees co-wrote the screenplay with McFarland, USA writers Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois.

The HBO Films TV movie, unsurprisingly, is rich in entertaining musical interludes, spanning Smith's rise on the black vaudeville circuit, her rousing theater and tent-show performances, and the start of her recording career for Columbia. Latifah's syncopated vocals have burnished power and feeling, and despite song titles such as "Down Hearted Blues," "Young Woman's Blues," "Preachin' the Blues," "Work House Blues" and "Weepin' Woman Blues," the infectious numbers are most notable for capturing the joyous resilience and defiant pride of music born out of difficult lives.

In addition to Smith, the film salutes another salty blues pioneer, Ma Rainey, appealingly played by Mo'Nique with an insouciant swagger and flinty demeanor that soften into warmth when early professional rivalry gives way in later years to friendship and support.

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Both performers are depicted as sexually omnivorous hedonists and hard-ass businesswomen, unwilling to be exploited because of their color or gender. In one amusing payment negotiation with a white agent from the Theater Owners Booking Association, Ma scoffs that TOBA stands for "Tough on Black Asses." In another scene, Ma performs "Prove It on Me" in a top hat and tuxedo, illustrating with a wink that conventional sexual boundaries were made to be broken. (Mo'Nique's vocals are dubbed.)

Rees and Latifah don't gloss over either Smith's bisexuality or her abrasive, temperamental nature. Throughout the story, flashes of her troubled upbringing following her mother's death are shown, with her older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) painted as a cruel guardian. But the film leaves much of the transitional detail between scenes, allowing the viewer to connect the dots between that motherless child and the tenacious woman swigging moonshine out of a jar, throwing punches and refusing to be dominated in any way. An early scene in 1913 Atlanta shows her making out in a theater alley with a man who turns hostile, smashing a bottle over her head when Bessie puts on the brakes. She retaliates with a piece of broken glass and then goes right on stage to perform, with blood dripping from beneath her headband.

Having learned how to communicate with an audience under Ma's guidance, Bessie breaks out on her own, managed by her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles). In a wry acknowledgment that Smith was a pre-civil rights proponent of black pride, she flips the TOBA circuit's brown-paper-bag test on its head, insisting that anyone performing in her troupe has to be darker, not lighter, than the bag. "No yella bitches," she shouts while auditioning new talent.

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In one terrific scene, she scares off the Klan as they attempt to shut down a North Carolina tent performance, sashaying back in carrying a hatchet as she resumes singing. Elsewhere, she rejects the patronizing appreciation of white cultural arbiters eager to embrace black artists, placing her deliberately outside the Harlem Renaissance that opened doors for figures like Langston Hughes and Ethel Waters.

One of Bessie's performers, the composite character Lucille (Tika Sumpter), is her longtime lover, a relationship drawn with great tenderness. But that doesn't stop Bessie from marrying cocky security guard Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), who also takes her career in hand, causing friction with Clarence. Her bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps) also becomes a lover, though he's unwilling to join an entourage in which everyone close to her is part of a business relationship. The film observes how these bonds are cemented and then broken as her fame grows and her attempt to create an extended family in a Philadelphia mansion falls apart.

Latifah strips naked literally and figuratively as Bessie removes her wig, jewelry and lashes; facing herself in the mirror, she’s a woman hurt and vulnerable but also steadfast in her refusal to be diminished. For such a volatile character, Latifah gives a refreshingly restrained performance, and her commanding stillness imbues gravitas into a number of key scenes. She conveys Smith's toughness and earthy sensuality, keeping the demons that drive her forward or nudge her toward self-destruction largely internalized.

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The other characters are less fully rounded, but in addition to Mo'Nique, Sumpter and Epps register as vibrant presences, while Williams and Alexander find nuance in figures whose ties to Smith were compromised by self-interest or resentment.

Rees makes an interesting choice to end on a note of emotional stability and ongoing professional renewal, rather than concluding with the fatal car crash that cut short Smith's life at 43. This is in keeping with the film's rigorous depiction of her as a strong-willed, difficult individual and not as a victim. The subtext of how the absence of a loving mother in late childhood scarred her life perhaps could have been more robustly drawn. And some of the uplifting moments are handled with pat conventionality, bathed in sun-kissed light and coated in Rachel Portman's sugary score. But for the most part, this is a smartly observed, understated biographical drama that sidesteps hagiography and treats its complex subject with integrity.

The film looks sharp, with flavorful period production design and gorgeous costumes by Michael T. Boyd that range from down-home poverty through shimmering 1920s glamour to Depression drab. The end credits save one final treat in a fabulous remastered recording of Smith singing the growly good-time anthem "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer."

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