At the start of HBO’s Bessie, the woman who would become the Empress of Blues is just another singer enduring heckles on an Atlanta stage. But by a mere 20 minutes later in the film's runtime, she has met the iconic Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), inserted herself into Rainey’s traveling show, outshone her, and ditched her. It’s a dizzyingly fast telling of what surely was a more complicated rise to fame for the real-life Bessie Smith, and at first, it’s easy to suspect the film of sloppy pacing decisions and big omissions. But by the end of the movie, a different explanation emerges for why the narrative moves so speedily. You’ve got to hustle to keep up with Bessie Smith.
Smith died in 1937 at age 42 but remains a jazz and blues legend, having influenced the likes of Billie Holiday, Robert Plant, and Janis Joplin (who bought a tombstone to be placed at Smith’s formerly unmarked grave). The contours of her life—from poor and parentless to minstrel singer to celebrity of unprecedented stature to career slump to premature death by car crash—are simple enough, but the details could fill seasons of a TV series. She recorded some of the first major-label “race records”; she was bisexual; she married and broke up with her manager. At one point, a man stabbed her in the street, but she still performed the next day. Another time, she chased away the KKK members who’d shown up to a tent concert of hers.
The director Dee Rees portrays those last two situations, such shocking examples of the horrors faced by a black woman in the South in the 20s, as minor moments of drama rather than symbolically defining. In each instance, the film revels not in the attacks but in the performances Smith puts on after them. This appears to be in line with Smith’s own attitude toward obstacles, at least as she’s depicted in the movie. Sexism and racism, not to mention rules about who’s allowed to have sex with whom, present themselves again and again, only to be met with Smith’s impatience and scorn. In the first minutes of Bessie, she nonchalantly slashes a would-be rapist with a bottle shard and then walks on stage. Later, she throws a drink in the face of a liberal white author who’d been fawning over her “dusky pathos.” And when her husband/manager Jack Gees screams at her for buying a house without his knowledge, she rolls her eyes and continues giving a home tour to her brother.
Queen Latifah doesn’t play Smith with the superhuman brashness that you might expect. Even as she conquers the vaudeville circuit and crushes social conventions, Smith comes off as somewhat reserved, with a vein of vulnerability. Her love scenes with men and women alike are filled with affectionate pillow talk, and she’s capable of deep self-reflection; in one long and powerful sequence, the camera lingers as the naked Latifah contemplates herself in the mirror. Though it’s her M.O. to hit back harder at everyone who hits her, Smith tries to get along with her controlling husband for as long as she can, and she meets her sister’s cruelty with charity and eventual forgiveness.
Most touchingly, she yearns to build a beautiful home life for her friends and family, the kind of domestic oasis she’d been denied in childhood. When she buys a house without Gee’s consent, it’s not about humiliating him; it’s about taking what she wants. “Why you ain’t ask me first—see if I’m ready?” asks Gee, played by Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. “Well,” she replies, “I’m ready.” The movie slows down to linger in the happy era when Smith’s extended family and adopted son—also acquired without Gee’s foreknowledge—lived under one roof as the nation listened to Smith’s songs and she carried on an affair with a handsome bootlegger.
At nearly two hours, Bessie feels a lot like any other TV biopic, with unspectacular production values and a mostly chronological story structure. But it’s hard not to be moved by the woman it portrays, and by the point of view it shares with her. Smith’s achievements as a musician are shown as serving, not betraying, her desires as a woman, mother, and lover, and those achievements come almost entirely from her own will and talents. When her bootlegger/lover tries to give back the money she’s paid him for gin, reasoning that their relationship is too transactional, she refuses: Bessie Smith doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. The one person who’s exempt from that rule might be her mentor Ma Rainey, whom Smith visits at the end of the film. Rainey compares ambition to a hole in the stomach, saying “You got to fill up that hole yourself, sweetheart. Nothing and nobody else will fill it.” Smith, it’s clear by then, has already figured that lesson out.