Queen Latifah has proven herself both in the music and film worlds. She started off in music and then transitioned into Hollywood starring in films like Chicago, Jungle Fever, Scary Movie 3, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Hairspray. Though I am sure that there are many who think all she can do are comedies and musicals. The HBO series Bessie, based on the life of singer Bessie Smith, will go a long way towards proving that she can do drama as well.
Like many films about the lives of singers or actors this one involves childhood trauma that leads to addiction or psychological problems. When Bessie was still young her mother died and that meant that her older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander – There’s Something About Mary, What’s Love Got to Do With It) raised her and her older brother, Clarence (Tory Kittles – Phone Booth, Olympus Has Fallen). Viola herself had a drinking problem and inflicted trauma on Bessie. Much having to do with food.
As a young adult Bessie, guided by Clarence, began performing in shows as a singer. After boarding the train of blues singer Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique – Precious, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins) she joins her traveling show making a name for herself. At a certain point Bessie realizes that she is going to have to go out on her own.
Her career blew up after she went out on her own. Though at times her drinking and love life (she was bisexual) got in the way. Eventually, she married Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams – 12 Years a Slave, Gone Baby Gone). That did not stop her from sleeping with others like Lucille (Tika Sumpter – Salt, Ride Along 2) and her bootlegger, Richard (Mike Epps – The Hangover, Next Friday).
Tracing the years from 1903 until her own death in 1937 this biopic not only gives you an insider’s look at the career of Bessie Smith, but her life behind the scenes and why she was the way she was. Queen Latifah gets down the woman’s passion and fire perfectly. It is what made her a great singer and songwriter, but also led to her downfall. She creates a character that is stubborn, fiercely independent, had a violent temper, and leaned towards excess.
A long overdue film considering the impact this woman had on the music industry. Important for younger people, especially if they are music fans, to learn about Bessie Smith. Doubly important for young women to see someone who fought to find her place in a world ruled by men.
Though overall this is well worth your time it was a little disappointing that the ending made you think that Bessie and Richard just went off happily into the sunset. We don’t see the actual tragic early end to her life. A little misleading. A problem that often occurs when you try to condense a person’s life into a two hour film. Some things are inevitably left out.
-Bessie: A Creative Journey
-Filming in Georgia