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Bessie [Movie Review]

Bessie is an HBO film starring Queen Latifah in an excellent portrayal of 1920’s blues legend Bessie Smith. The movie covers Bessie’s rise, fall, and comeback during the 1920’s — 1930’s with brief peeks back into her childhood.

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The first 20 minutes or so of the movie featured Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) teaching Bessie the ropes of live performances. Ma Rainey’s bravado made me want to see Mo’Nique appear in more movies, especially in dramatic roles. Few people have pulled out a firearm with such a mix of smooth panache and danger or made a gold tooth look downright fancy. I was a bit surprised to find that both Bessie and Ma Rainey were quite open about their sexuality. This was one of the topics that made me wish that the movie began a bit earlier in Bessie’s life.

Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey

Lucille (Tika Sumpter) was Bessie’s only long-term female lover and companion shown in the film. Mike Gee (Michael K. Williams) and Richard (Mike Epps) were two of the main men in Bessie’s life. Mike was her husband/manager while Richard was her lover/bootlegger business partner. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of these relationships.

Tika Sumpter as Lucille

Lucille was feminine and loved but didn’t challenge Bessie. They shared a few funny and loving scenes but it felt as though Lucille was there as arm candy and didn’t have much to do. This might have been intentional given the nature of her role in Bessie’s life and the events of her final scene.

Michael K. Williams as Mike Gee

Bessie and Mike were spitfires on their own but together they could be a danger to themselves and others. Their passionate natures made good times great but bad times terrible. Mike was a gangster and hustler who admired Bessie’s drive and pushed her to excel in her career. But, his ambition and manipulative business methods made his motives appear questionable. Mixing business with their personalities created serious power struggles in the relationship.

Mike Epps as Richard

Richard was a steadfast and calming presence in Bessie’s life. Richard sought and nurtured a relationship with Bessie the woman rather than Bessie the business. Yet, aside from a few touching moments, the relationship with Richard wasn’t explored enough. Mike Epps brought a certain warmth to the character and it was refreshing to see him in a dramatic role.

Khandi Alexander as Viola

I adore Khandi Alexander and make it a point to try to check out any project that she appears in. The promos listed Khandi as one of the stars so I expected her to have a larger role in the film. She made her presence felt as Viola, Bessie’s older sister, but there wasn’t much back story and the character felt underdeveloped. Viola still managed to be an interesting character which speaks to Khandi’s talent. Viola had a basic story at best and would have seemed rather flat if portrayed by a lesser actress.

Queen Latifah as Bessie

Queen Latifah did an amazing job and embodied the role of Bessie Smith. It’s easy to forget that you’re watching Queen Latifah playing Bessie Smith because it feels like you’re watching moments from Bessie Smith’s life. I enjoyed her performance and appreciated the moments where she stepped out of herself to convey Bessie’s vulnerability.

The idea that people back then weren’t much different from people now didn’t quite click for me until recently. Society portrays the prevalence of violence and sexuality as recent concepts. It was interesting that danger seemed to be omnipresent and lurking around the corner. A night out at a fish fry or juke joint could end with someone getting sliced with a razor or stabbed with a pocket knife. Not to mention the possibility of the Ku Klux Klan showing up to cause trouble.

The film was chronological but hopped around a bit. It focused too much on some events while spending too little time on others. It felt like I was watching snapshots from the highlights of Bessie’s life rather than the definitive Bessie Smith movie. Ending on a positive look to a future that would never occur was a nice creative touch.

Recommendation

When the credits rolled, I still had a lot of questions and felt a bit unfulfilled. There was so much more to know about Bessie’s childhood, her relationship with her siblings, and how she decided to get into music. I gained a good understanding of Bessie’s career but not much insight into the motivations of the person. The majority of the film’s shortcomings were a result of being too short and focusing on Bessie as an adult. The project should have been a miniseries rather than a two-hour movie.

Bessie is quite good due to the great performances and cinematography but the story itself is a bit lacking. To be clear, it’s still a good movie, very enjoyable, and worth seeing. I recommend Bessie if you’re into music, a fan of any of the actors, or you’re just looking for a good movie to watch.

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