The HBO biopic movie Bessie (2015) tells a rather familiar Behind the Music-style tale of “Empress of the Blues” singer Bessie Smith’s life. But, while the narrative may be a touch formulaic with the ‘overcoming traumatic childhood, finding a showbiz mentor, becoming a big star, gaining everything, losing it all, staging a comeback’ pattern, an excellent performance by Queen Latifah as Bessie makes this film utterly entrancing. The supporting cast is also wicked good, particularly Mo’nique as Ma Rainey, Bessie’s mentor, and the whole TV movie looks quite nice as a period piece.
The story begins in 1913 when Bessie meets Ma Rainey and begins her rise to fame. Now, I can’t say how much of the film’s story is factual to Bessie Smith’s life since all I know about her is the music I’ve heard and a few articles I’ve read. Some elements of the HBO movie feel exaggerated, such as the drama surrounding certain characters’ meetings and partings and the immediate failure of Bessie’s career during the Great Depression.
But many other elements of the story feel true to the times. Well represented is the casual racism that pervades everything the characters do and deal with, from contract negotiations with concert bookers to the ‘paper-bag test’ determining shades of blackness to KKK members trying to disrupt a tent-revival-style concert. One especially powerful scene shows a party of patronizing, New York City, white “liberal” elites of the 1920s who think “primitive negro arts” such as Bessie’s blues and Langston Hughes’ poetry are trendy.
Other subtly meaningful themes are food as comfort and clothing as artifice. Bessie is shown eating at stressful times almost as much as she’s shown drinking bootleg gin. She literally walks in Ma Rainey’s shoes, and towards the end of the film, she faces the mirror as if to question who she really is underneath the glamor and glitz of the stage.
Both Bessie’s and Ma Rainey’s lesbian / bisexual preferences (not necessarily for each other) are honestly addressed from the start of the movie, and this is treated as no big deal by most of the people who know them. Ma, in the film, even quotes from her song lyrics, “Prove It on Me,” where she’s open about her orientation: “They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. Sure got to prove it on me. Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.” Ma sings this song in the movie while wearing a tuxedo, since the song follows with the line, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie.” For those who think plus-size women can’t cross-dress effectively, well, damn, you need to see this movie! First Mo’nique wears the tux, and then she dons a 1910s suit to cross-dress, and she looks fantastic in both — proving it’s all in the tailoring.
Speaking of tailoring, the costumer designer is Michael T. Boyd, whose most recent work was Point of Honor (2015), but let’s not hold that against him. He acquitted himself quite well here with Bessie, creating a range of 1910s through 1930s daywear and stage costumes. A few of the evening wear does look a bit costume-y, but it is being worn on stage for nightclub performances, and not to a Downton Abbey type audience.
What’s remarkable is how good Queen Latifah and Mo’nique look in their historical costumes — being women of size, wearing 1920s styles in an attractive fashion can be difficult. Boyd and his team got the fit and proportion right, and it doesn’t look like either woman is being cinched down unnaturally. Curves are present and accounted for. Dresses skim and flow, bias-cut is used well, trim is smartly placed, and waistlines and necklines are expertly fitted to accentuate and flatter. As a non-stick-figure woman myself who can really look like crap in 1920s outfits, I’m impressed by the style of these outfits and inspired to give the era another try!
There’s one ’20s evening gown Bessie wears that has a less-than flattering cut (a long, silvery satin number with a low side bow). But this is balanced out by so many good looks in the ’20s, and especially the 1930s. In the later scene where she’s recording at Columbia Records with Benny Goodman, Bessie wears a red dress that is amazingly perfect in every way (couldn’t get a screencap, sorry).
Watch for Bessie on HBO through May 2015.