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Bessie

Wednesday 13 April 2016, by Coco Green

Get ready for booze, explicit sex, and a love triangle. Essentially a blues story, but also so much more. Queen Latifah (Dana Elaine Owens) reportedly spent the better of a decade trying to get this film made. However the film doesn’t appear to be a labour of love; the Bessie Smith biopic seamlessly weaves the personal, the poetic and the political.

Part of the reason this HBO TV film took so long to be green-lighted is because Ms Smith, The Empress of the Blues, is still a black woman of African descent in 1920s and 30s US; so just as today her labour power was limited as her story’s perceived mass appeal. For some reason white artists’ pain is universal the artist can embody creativity and pathos; but black artists’ can only tell black stories (which is what leads to cultural appropriation I suppose). Despite talent, drive and a head for business, which help to substantiate the American Dream for those of you who don’t know, her contribution to jazz and music as a popular, lucrative commodity has been largely forgotten. But it’s the latter that makes the story that much richer.

If anyone is familiar with the films Ray (2004), Get on Up (2014) or What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), or really any performer biopic, knows the drill: traumatic childhood, abuse, alcohol/drugs and lots sex. Yet Bessie manages to incorporate these tropes while portraying people, not caricatures, or props for the main characters. Motives are unclear and people prove to be reliable, then unreliable, then loyal once more. Thinking about how black artists confront racism and challenge injustice is also well done as the audience is already so drawn in by the jazz, costumes and unflappable Smith that we’re not just rooting for her, but what for what her achievements will mean for millions. Also the struggle for artists to get their fair share and respect outside of how much money they can make for labels will be even more relevant for contemporary audiences.

If you don’t have HBO there will be a one-time showing at 19:30 on Wednesday, 13 April 2016 at Regent Street Cinema, London.

Dir. Dee Rees, 2015

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