HereIsTV Review – Bessie
by Kevin Downey for HereIsTV
One hundred years ago, at a time when African Americans were firmly second-class citizens (if that) but with a thriving, music-rich culture of their own, despite it all – slavery being a fresh, raw wound – Ma Rainey and right behind her, Bessie Smith, were against all odds becoming self-made, rich and famous American blues singers.
They toured the country on their own fancy trains. They lived in beautiful homes and they ushered in the earliest era of musical recordings. And they had, at least in Bessie, active, open sex lives with women and, particularly for Bessie, men. A lot of both.
All of which is at the heart of Dee Rees’ zippy, fun Bessie, with Queen Latifah as Bessie and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey.
The movie is sometimes daring, like when Queen’s Bessie is locking lips with women, grabbing men’s crotches and contemplatively sitting nude for a long stretch in front of a mirror.
But Bessie mostly has the look and feel of a made-for-TV movie, a better-than-average one that is forgivably scrubbed clean of the worst of American history and the worst of Bessie’s life.
When the Ku Klux Klan shows up at one of Bessie’s concerts, for instance, she rushes outside and shoos the gun-toting killers away with a stick. When Bessie looks out at an audience with white people in the good seats and black people up in the balcony, she grimaces. But that’s it. And when a man smacks the bejeezus out of her, she stabs him. When she herself is later stabbed, seriously, she jumps out of her hospital bed and hits the road. When her adopted son is kidnapped by a no-good man who also steals her money, she cries.
But Bessie gets right back up.
All of which is forgivable in Bessie in part because it feels real. These women couldn’t have made it if they licked their wounds for too long.
But, more than that, Bessie is a celebration of what she and Ma Rainey accomplished. It doesn’t need to be dark and dreary. We’re all familiar with that side of the story.
These two black lesbians, in a white man’s early 20th century, rose above their circumstances with amazing talent – singing, self promotion and, notably Ma, entrepreneurship. And they set the stage for a century and counting of African-American musicians and black music.
Bessie isn’t a great movie. The acting at times gets wobbly. And it rarely takes a beat to let Bessie’s story sink in. But what it does best – celebrate Bessie and Ma – is done well, with enthusiasm, respect and great music.