Blues legend Bessie Smith was arguably America's most powerful black woman during her heyday in the '20s and '30s. Her reign wasn't just based on being the highest-paid African-American entertainer of her generation, but, according to the new HBO movie Bessie, on the freedoms she allowed herself after breaking with social norms and concerns about "respectability." Smith's life on the road, eventually aboard her own flashy train, gave the jazz songstress the autonomy to love as she wished: finding intimacy with men and women alike, and outside her marriage to her husband-manager; adopting a 7-year-old boy without consulting her spouse; and rejecting anyone who didn't pass her version of the brown-paper-bag test — light-skinned women were barred from her revue ("No yellow bitches!").
The Empress of the Blues was the queen of her small domain, but she was still an African American in the Jim Crow South and a woman during female suffrage's first decade. Per director Dee Rees's biopic, Smith was also a hedonist during Prohibition, a bisexual when that word had barely been invented, and an autodidact whose uncouth manners and nouveau riche indulgences didn't exactly endear her to the African-American intelligentsia of the Harlem Renaissance. In other words, Smith was all wrong — which is precisely what made her both such a difficult personality to be around and a figure of rebellious hope.
In its best moments, Bessie captures what it's like to be the exception that proves the rule, as well as to "know" people well enough to provide them with comfort and uplift from hundreds of feet away with just the sound of her voice — but never to be one of the masses. The isolation of fame is well-trod territory in showbiz biographies, of course, but Smith's place in history, and the marginalization she couldn't escape, no matter her wealth, lends her alienation from the world considerably more weight.
Played by the ever-luminous Queen Latifah, Bessie is a pugilist in beads and feathers, a fighter who was sucker-punched early in life and wary of letting it happen again. Disoriented on the stage and arrogant on the streets, Bessie has a taste for violence, too — maybe even an adoration for it. Her future husband Jack, played by Michael K. Williams, cuts another man's face for paying too much attention to Bessie, already a celebrity, on their first date. Instead of being horrified, the singer is visibly turned on, barking at her carriage driver to keep his eyes on the road while she shows her new paramour her appreciation of his ferocious jealousy. Their love affair will gradually lead to a tangle of fists and slaps, of course, but in that instant, you can't help being happy for Bessie that she's found a man who aspires to be her equal.
The TV movie, which premieres Saturday, May 16, chronicles Bessie's life from her early days as Ma Rainey's (Mo'Nique) opening act through her rapid ascent, to her low-down years as a has-been novelty act, and finally, a comeback tour orchestrated by white music producer John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg). We're thankfully spared the gruesome car accident that cut Smith's life short at age 43. Especially in its structure, Bessie looks a lot like other musical biopics, including its fuzzy flashbacks to a laboriously explained childhood trauma.
But where the film disappoints with convention, it more than makes up for with its fascinating portraits of Bessie's freeing but isolating self-seclusion and her doomed marriage. Bessie may have learned everything she needs to sing the blues on her own, but Ma Rainey, her ruthlessly practical mentor, teaches her how to make people pay attention to her while she's on stage — which sometimes involves getting decked out in a top hat and tuxedo at least a decade before Marlene Dietrich. (Based on appearances, at least half the production budget seems to have gone to the wardrobe department — with dazzling results.)
Despite her own vaunted musical career, Latifah doesn't particularly thrill during the blues performances — Smith's songs might be too of the time for contemporary tastes. But the actress is a knockout in other scenes, particularly during a quietly cathartic one where she sits nude in front of her dressing table, pensively peeling off the wig, the earrings, the eyelashes, and other accoutrements of the stage. Playing a wealthy woman long accustomed to satin shoes and sequined finery, Bessie is finally able to be sexy and tired and honest alone. There's a Lena Dunham–esque defiance, too, in the matter-of-factness of Rees's presentation of her star: This is what a woman looks like, and all judgments thereof are simply pointless because her body is her body.
If Bessie ever does feel "big and ugly," it's largely on account of her philandering husband, who prefers his mistresses thin and light-skinned. Jack's occasional willingness to take a punch from his wife — even in public — doesn't last forever, and he's more than happy to assert his male prerogatives with his knuckles at home. But Bessie's too much of a survivor to simply be a victim and, truth be told, girl gets off on drama. (She wouldn't otherwise bring home a seven-year-old boy to a family dinner, proclaiming him to be their new son — without ever discussing the matter with Jack.) And whatever her husband's faults as a domestic partner, Bessie wouldn't have become the Bessie Smith without him: A lifetime of discrimination by both white and black men had made her reluctant to take the risks necessary to further her career and leave behind a legacy, and it's Jack who convinces her to take the next steps. Theirs is likely to become one of the most compelling pop-culture marriages this year.
Above all, though, Bessie is a fascinating exploration of a certain kind of black exceptionalism. When the local KKK chapter comes to scare away audiences at one of her concerts, Bessie knocks around the masked villains single-handedly, superhero-style, and chases them away. It's a rousing scene, almost too inspirational to be true, but also tinged with the tragedy that only someone so entitled to her sense of dignity — to the point of carelessness about her safety and possibly her life — can enact. And the knowledge of her exceptionality makes Bessie haughty, too, as when she hack-spits into a delicate teacup not three feet away from the first group of producers to offer her a record deal.
Smith never needed grace to thrive. She made a very good living lamenting all the ways the men in her life made her miserable — and made other men listen to her plaints while their sisters, wives, and daughters nodded their heads in agreement as she sang, giving voice to all they could not say.
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Bessie Premieres at Sunday, May 16 on HBO Directed and co-written by Dee Rees Starring Queen Latifah, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo'Niqe, Mike Epps, Tory Kittles, Tika Sumpter, Oliver Platt, Bryan Greenberg and Charles S. Dutton.
Inkoo Kang is the TV Critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.