Bessie (2015)

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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 real Bessie Smith in 1936, phtoo by Carl Van Vechten.

The real Bessie Smith in 1936, photo by Carl Van Vechten.

Bessie (Queen Latifah) & Ma Rainey (Mo'nique).

Bessie (Queen Latifah) & Ma Rainey (Mo’nique).

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.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

Bessie’s first recording session at Columbia Records.

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.

Bessie (Queen Latifah) & Lucille (Tika Sumpter).

Bessie & her backup dancer / lover, Lucille.

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.

Bessie

Ma Rainey in ‘a collar and a tie.’

 

Bessie Costumes

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.

Bessie in a stage outfit from the very first scene of the movie.

Bessie in a stage outfit from the very first scene of the movie.

Mo'nique as Ma Rainey.

Ma Rainey on stage (the hair & headdress resemble this photo of Rainey).

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!

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

Singin’ them bootleggin’ blues.

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).

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

Bessie Smith’s revival tent show.

Tika Sumpter as Lucille.

Lucille enjoying a garden party.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

Bessie, pretty in pink.

Tory Kittles as Clarence, Bessie's older brother and manager.

Tory Kittles as Clarence, Bessie’s older brother and manager.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

One of many great ’20s hats in the movie.

Michael Kenneth Williams as Jack Gee, Bessie's husband.

Michael Kenneth Williams as Jack Gee, Bessie’s husband.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith.

Bessie sings in the city.

 

 Watch for Bessie on HBO through May 2015.

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

9 Responses

  1. Dee M.

    I am SO looking forward to this. I love Bessie Smith’s music and I’m always interested in seeing a woman who’s around my size in a costume drama! Queen Latifah has always been a fashion role model for me. She’s a large woman who is (and is usually portrayed as) attractive, confident and in control. That is far too rare.

    Reply
  2. Shawna

    Was excited to see the trailer for this movie just the other day. Love this period, the music, a good woman-centric biopic, etc. Although the costume designer appears to have cheated a bit with Ma Rainey’s burgundy colored dress [3rd still from the top] — it sure looks like the “Titanic” dress by Nataya brand.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      A few shortcuts, true true. I expect that some (many? all?) of the beaded gowns are also purchased — but they must have been altered bec. they fit well & are quite flattering. Not easy to achieve off-the-rack for 1920s & especially not above a size 10 (I speak from unfortunate experience).

      Reply
  3. Joanne Renaud

    The costumes look really good. One question though– do you think they’re wearing modern bras under their dresses? It kind of looks like they are, though I’m not sure…

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      In scenes where the women are undressing or half-dressed (& there’s a lot of such scenes), they’re wearing ’20s undergarments at least.

      Reply
  4. Bridget

    Watching this now. More bad Hollywood meets Halloween costuming. Cheap and cheesy. Propagating the feather boa and evening glove mythology thought to be typical of this period. Anything sparkly goes in this film, the uglier the better.

    Reply
  5. Jonathan Belmares

    Ok I have been watching this on an off all week. Its on repeat on HBO. I feel like the costuming is a off the wall which bugs me some of them are really good and then some I am like WTH is she wearing? NO NO NO!!!!!! I need to actually watch it fully threw because I missed a lot of these costumes. I really didn’t like the one scene where you can see the brand tag on the cloche she is wearing with this repro dress (Betting its stop staring or betty page ect.) that has an obvious zipper up the back. I can tell you most of the beaded evening gowns are definitely reproductions. Its pretty easy just from all my years doing deco to see what is real vintage or specially made items compared to modern or repro. I thought the cross dress scenes were done super well. Its also some of the accessories that are making certain outfits stand out bad. Like everything Queen Latifah has on in the first screen shot is new and the accessories are terrible look like they came right out of forever 21 or charming Charlie. My second issue is her wearing an evening dress with a boa during the day! WRONG WRONG WRONG. Some of her head wear got a little Halloween party store for me. I always find it funny that the extras or minor characters like Lucille will be better dressed historically than the leads will.

    Reply
  6. Bartly

    I find these costumes painfully bad. Cliché 1920’s wear – Feather headbands, gloves, spangles and unnecessary overuse of pearl necklaces. It looks cheap and tawdry. The hats look like something from a bargain store trimmed with a discount ribbon. Nothing matches, it looks like the actors fell into a theatrical wardrobe and walked out with whatever they happened to find. I cant see one sign of any thought or direction in these costumes..

    Reply

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