“The Empress of Rhythm” first appears in “Bessie” as a pair of fairytale shoes. The camera pans up, passing slowly over the floor-length cascade of round sequins that comprise her dress—the color of the Yellow Brick Road—and by the time she reaches the end of the stage, it’s clear that Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) is the coin of the realm. Seated in the audience, our heroine, blues icon-to-be Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah), peers up at this glittering fantasy of the power of performance completely transfixed. And so are we.
Channeling her abhorrence for an unjust system into the subversive authority of the star turn, Ma Rainey, much like the actress who brings her to life, quickly establishes herself as a magnetic force. What she attracts with her music’s beguiling blend of humor and pathos she can also repel with the quick draw of a pistol or a rash of rough talk. “I heard you in the show, I know you can sing,” she answers Bessie, who’s asked for an audition, as the train of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Revue (literally) leaves the station. “So stay or jump, bitch.” It’s from this moment that Smith’s extraordinary career and tumultuous personal life will both flow, but only here does “Bessie” manage to match Dee Rees’ stylish direction with a narrative that defies expectation. When Mo’Nique is onscreen, her intense, razor-like charisma cuts through the clutter of biographical details to get at the beating heart of the matter.
If Mo’Nique upstages Latifah, the latter bears less responsibility than the writers. Adapted by Rees, Bettina Gilois and Christopher Cleveland from a story by Rees and Horton Foote, “Bessie” leans hard on the conventions of the biopic. As though pinched from the “Ray” playbook, flashbacks mix dreamy, sun-spotted images of a pre-lapsarian idyll with Bessie’s nightmarish memories of screaming for her deceased mother, as her older sister and caretaker, Viola (Khandi Alexander), chases her through the house; early obscurity segues into stardom, then into violence, addiction and artistic decline, all before the inevitable redemption.
It may simply be that the allure of the troubled genius remains impossible to resist, though the film’s allusions to W.E.B. DuBois, Pan-Africanism, and Négritude indicate instead that the writers try to pack “Bessie” so full of contemporaneous black political thought that they leave Smith’s personal narrative no room to blossom. Dispensing relatively rapidly with her businesslike marriage to Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams) and their adoption of a child, Jack, Jr. (Sylvester Ambrose James II), reducing her traumatic past to a handful of variations on a single event, the film scarcely begins to suggest the biographical roots of her music—much less sustain our interest in Smith’s series of bitter arguments with her husband over the terms of their fidelity, and her freedom.
The film’s most penetrating insights derive not from Bessie the individual but from Bessie the symbol, carving a path through the period’s intellectual hothouse via her encounters with the Harlem Renaissance and the Ku Klux Klan, “colored” record labels and the notion of “racial uplift.” In one superb sequence, Bessie performs, against the advice of Langston Hughes (Jeremie Harris), for the predominantly white guests at a tony New York party.
“Exactly the kind of dusky pathos I’m trying to capture for my new book, ‘Nigger Heaven,'” “liberal” writer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) comments, before she tosses her champagne in his face and shatters the glass on the floor. “You know the only difference between white folks in the North and white folks in the South?” she prods, preparing to drop a truth bomb: “White folks in the South don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big, and white folks in the North don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close.”
Van Vechten responds with a patronizing chuckle and a racist remark—”If Bessie Smith is crude and primitive, she reflects the true folk spirit of her race”—underlining the fact, as true today as it was in the interwar years, that white “allies” often silence black voices in the ostensible effort to support them. Though one might wish for more sustained engagement with one or two of these ideological threads, “Bessie” offers a rare glimpse, certainly for television, into black culture and black consciousness in the depths of the Jim Crow era. It is, if not always dramatically satisfying, an erudite revision of the prevailing popular wisdom that the Civil Rights Movement emerged whole cloth from Brown v. Board.
It’s when Rees funnels the script’s political energies into the everyday life of the characters that “Bessie” shines brightest—as Smith slaps the brown paper bag from a director’s hand, for instance, a nod at the infamous test used to discriminate against black Americans of darker complexion, or, later, as she demands “No yellow bitches!” in the chorus of her own traveling revue. As Maxine Leeds Craig explains in her extraordinary book “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?” the evolution of beauty standards for black women is at the intersection of a complex constellation of ideas about race, class, gender, and skin color, a history “Bessie” understands intuitively.
Rees turns the camera on the audience during the musical numbers, turning the tables on the consumption of black women’s bodies in the process; she surveys the sexual and platonic relationships between black women from the inside out, never leering or laughing. Though it’s Mo’Nique’s Ma Rainey who steals the show, Rees reserves the film’s most memorable image for Bessie. Sitting naked at her dressing table, she removes her makeup and her geometric wig, singing “Long Road” in a hoarse, hitched voice as the camera peers over her shoulder to focus our attention on her reflection in the mirror at the center of the frame.
To treat a black woman’s body thus, neither fetishizing nor denigrating her appearance but simply allowing her to inhabit it, is so vanishingly rare in popular culture—even now, nearly 70 years after Smith’s untimely death—that the moment becomes the film’s own radical act. Without accoutrements and without an audience, the gaze hers and hers alone, Bessie assures herself that she’ll “find the end”: a reminder that the power of performance isn’t just a glittering fantasy. It comes from within.
“Bessie” airs Saturday, May 16 at 8pm on HBO.