TV Review - Bessie

Dee Rees directed Pariah, an independent film about a young, black girl who comes to terms with her lesbian identity. It's not surprising why Rees was chosen to helm this biopic about Bessie Smith. Bessie was a blues singer whom we meet early in her career in Atlanta 1913. She's doing a stage musical, but the following morning, she wakes up with not a man in her bed but instead a woman. Yes, it's revealed that Bessie had some lesbian tendencies. However, this film is not an exploration of sexuality. Bessie's lesbian side isn't even treated as much of an issue. In fact, most people in the film accept it without question.

Queen Latifah stars as Bessie Smith. Latifah was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Chicago, but the majority of her roles on the big screen have been musical, broad or comedic. It's only been on television that she's been doing more dramatic pieces like Life Support (2007), which was probably her best role, and Steel Magnolias (2012). This is Latifah perhaps at her most vulnerable, literally letting all of herself be exposed.

Last year, Viola Davis made headlines when she did a scene in her hit TV series How to Get Away with Murder where her character removed her wig and makeup, revealing her natural self in an intimate moment in the mirror. It's the kind of image that one rarely sees on television, a black woman with no artifice, just her natural self, bare to the world.

Here, Latifah takes it a step further. Her character doesn't just remove a wig and makeup. Her character goes completely nude and stares at herself in the mirror. It comes at a crucial time when Bessie after being at the height of her fame and power starts to lose everything. She then has to look at herself, all of herself, naked and bare to the world, contemplating who she is and what's important. It's a powerful moment beyond the nudity aspect.

Co-written by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, the film charts the typical rise and fall that we've come to expect in many stories about musicians. Stories about musicians are so formulaic that VH-1 was even able to make a TV series out of that formula called Behind the Music. The E! True Hollywood Story abides by the same formula. At least, in this case, Bessie isn't taken down by her own addictions or vices, which is normally the case. She isn't taken down by racism either, which would have been an obvious route. She's taken down by what generally took down all, and that was the Great Depression.

Therefore, we simply have to delight in particular moments or passages in Bessie's life, since the whole thing never really congeals to a whole where we're left with one over-arching idea or message. The only real takeaway would simply be the fact that there was this amazing black woman who was talented and successful, but she didn't fit the archetypes of beauty that society has today. She was dark-skinned and seemed to want to promote that. She was also not skinny but didn't let that stop her.

Oscar-winner Mo'Nique (Precious and Blackbird) co-stars as Ma Rainey, one of the first blues singers to get a recording contract. Bessie seemed to pattern herself and her career after Ma Rainey who became like a mother figure to Bessie. Ma Rainey became somewhat jealous of Bessie when she started to rocket upward in appeal and fame. Yet, they remained good friends. They experienced ups and downs together, and some of the best scenes in this movie are between Mo'Nique and Latifah.

However, there are a lot of great scenes with a lot of great actors. Michael K. Williams (The Wire) plays Jack Gee, the first husband of Bessie. He becomes her manager as well as her man, understanding of her bisexuality. Tory Kittles (True Detective) plays Clarence, her brother who becomes jealous of Jack Gee who takes control of Bessie's career, pushing him aside. Khandi Alexander (CSI: Miami and Treme) plays Viola, her sister who is very resentful and sly.

A surprising performance came from Mike Epps who plays Richard, the second "husband" to Bessie. Epps in real-life is a stand-up comic who normally plays the comic relief or the wise-cracking sidekick in many films. His most serious role was probably in Sparkle (2012) where he got to play a villain. Here, however, he sheds all that and he believably becomes a romantic lead. He's not being funny or silly. He's being seriously sexy and it works. He makes you believe why Bessie or anyone would be drawn to him. He's sweet and loving and again very sexy.

The movie in fact ends on a romantic and hopeful note between Bessie and Richard. It almost makes you think that Bessie and Richard lived happily ever after. This is of course not the case. I understand why Rees probably didn't want to end on a downer, but depicting Bessie's true end could have been interesting being that there's controversy surrounding it. Tika Sumpter is also beautiful but wasted in this film as Bessie's girlfriend on the side.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.
Available on HBO.


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