Recent biopics (a term already somewhat loaded, meant to disparage as often as it is to describe) have shied away from the generic “birth to death” tactic that characterizes so much of the genre’s history. Films like Selma prefer to hold up a single event or period as the illuminating lens—smart when it works (as in Selma’s case), but distorting the larger view when it doesn’t. HBO’s Bessie splits the difference, but errs on the side of tradition. Starting with the early days of Bessie Smith’s musical career and following her through to the time of her post-Great Depression performances, it goes for an even balance between personal life and professional career. It picks and chooses the moments it wants to dwell in, and those moments add up to a compelling but too-fleeting portrayal of the singer.
While Bessie wants to provide a satisfying greatest hits collection, the actors are playing the deep cuts. And, in a cast full of strong performances, Queen Latifah stuns. Quite simply, it’s the finest performance she’s ever given. Her Smith is a live-wire of ego and appetite, someone who thinks nothing of starting a bar fight just to get her adrenalin flowing. She shows us a woman with boundless desires and crippling need, someone who never shies away from conflict—indeed, will even seek it out. Singing Smith’s songs herself, Latifah brings an astonishing depth and poignancy to the music, carried even further by her revelatory interpretation.
The blues singer’s social consciousness is on full display throughout. Smith turned the racism of the “bag test” (a metric used in casting performers, even in all-black revues—if your skin was darker than a paper bag, they wouldn’t hire you) into a political challenge. The film shows her creating an inverse bag test, where only the darkest-skinned women would be accepted into her show. A NYC party with some paternalistic and racist “intellectuals” ends with Smith throwing a drink in the face of a journalist (Oliver Platt) who posits himself an expert of Southern black culture. Several scenes dealing with the exploitative performance circuit demonstrate how Smith was able to force booking agents to honor their contracts, whether through blunt business savvy or threats of force.
The first section of the film shows us how she learned these skills: through the mentorship she received from Ma Rainey. As played by Mo’Nique, Rainey is the unstoppable force who eventually runs into Smith’s immoveable object. The actor lends Rainey a wily and brash persona, someone who wears her opinions on her sleeve and makes no apologies for openly decadent behavior, qualities Smith takes to heart. Despite hewing to overly simplistic scenes of instruction that come across as a brief series of life lessons, the friendship and subsequent estrangement of the two singers feels real and profound. It lends their eventual reconciliation a potency that exceeds the confines of the too-neat screenplay.
The film doesn’t shy away from Smith’s bisexuality, and her relationships are the strongest, least conventional moments of the movie. From her ongoing lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter), to her tempestuous open marriage to Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), to the numerous affairs and one-night stands throughout her life, the movie paints Smith as someone who could never quite be satiated. In Latifah’s hands, her desires serve as surrogates for quelling her early childhood trauma, but simultaneously fill her with joy, because they’re constant reminders that she is thrillingly, unashamedly alive. There are requisite scenes of Smith’s behavior shocking the bourgeoisie, but the better ones demonstrate her genuine affection for the people in her life. An affair with her bootleg liquor supplier (Mike Epps) turns into a later-in-life romance, with Latifah’s oceanic gaze testifying to the fount of hunger for intimacy usually kept hidden behind bedroom doors.
Smith’s unapologetic behavior often had negative consequences. She makes single-minded decisions that affect everyone around her, with little thought to their opinions; she both buys a house and adopts a child without first informing her husband. (Williams is excellent in these scenes, as a man who prides himself on his equal status but is continually an afterthought to his wife.) Later, when her impetuous decisions and alcoholism are spiralling out of control, Jack leaves, taking the child with him. He’s no saint himself, but Smith’s life is filled with actions meant to draw people closer to her that she undercuts with the alienating force of her emotional turbulence.
The film doesn’t include Smith’s abrupt car accident death, a decision that writer-director Dee Rees (working from a story she developed with the late Pulitzer-winning screenwriter Horton Foote) says was intended to highlight her as a heroic figure, not a tragic one. A scene in the film’s second act emphasizes this heroism: Smith and her band are about to perform one night when a crew of Klansmen arrive, pulling up the revue tent’s stakes as they hoot and taunt the black audience inside. Smith marches down off the stage and confronts the men, knocking one over and forcing them into retreat. She re-enters the tent a conquering hero, and fires up a full-bodied performance that plays like the greatest celebration in history. (In case the significance wasn’t clear, the following day Smith’s train passes by field workers, raising their hands in honor of the singer, as her brother says, “I never thought it’d be like this. You woke us up.”)
That really happened, as did many other outsize moments in Bessie Smith’s life, and they don’t need any extra juice. Happily, those beats that approach too-glossy-by-half Hollywood myth-making are balanced by quieter moments that allow the actors to elevate the proceedings. Right before her downward spiral, there’s a moment where we find Smith, seated in front of a mirror, nude, considering herself. With nothing but a brief verse of the song “Long Old Road,” Latifah’s Smith conveys a wealth of emotions, showing the sadness that is overtaking her, a literal self-analysis that gets at the heart of the character in ways that the too-often glib script can’t evoke.
There’s plenty that Rees leaves out of Smith’s life during this time—at one point, Smith starred in a Broadway flop—but the film still feels like a succinct run-through of key moments in her life. Scenes go on just long enough to convey the next life-altering decision, before it’s on to the next one. A longer film may have allowed the director some room to breathe, to let the plot unfold with the nuance and shadings that the actors almost uniformly lend their characters. One of the greatest blues singers of all time, Smith may simply be too big for the movie to contain. Luckily, Latifah’s towering portrayal gives her the magnetic and indelible portrait she deserves.