Fierce performances in HBO’s blues biopic ‘Bessie’
There are three good reasons to watch HBO’s “Bessie” on Saturday at
8 p.m.: Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, and Khandi Alexander.
While the two-hour film follows the familiar biopic template as it chronicles the life of legendary “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, this trio of formidable women — playing Smith, mentor Ma Rainey, and Smith’s hissable sister Viola, respectively — bring all of their firepower, often elevating the film from workmanlike to extraordinary with their collective ferocity.
Directed by Dee Rees (“Pariah”), “Bessie” traces Smith’s life from her hardscrabble youth in Chattanooga, Tenn., to her rise in vaudeville — under Rainey’s tutelage — to her eventual platinum recording success at Columbia Records in the Roaring Twenties to her career’s tough-luck ending during the Depression. (Her death at 43 in a car crash, oddly, is not addressed.) Along the way Smith romances several men and women, including volatile husband Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), with whom she was just as likely to share a kiss as come to blows.
Oscar winner Mo’Nique (“Precious”) electrifies the early part of the film as Rainey, digging deep to summon the grit, humor, self-possession, and attitude that we see Smith covet when she shows up unannounced on Rainey’s personal train car for an impromptu audition. When the train starts moving, Rainey says “stay or jump, bitch” with the conviction of someone who truly does not care, and later convincingly imparts hard-won advice: “The blues is not about people knowing you, it’s about you knowing people.”
It is Latifah’s good fortune that “Bessie” took more than 20 years to come to fruition. (She was originally offered the role at 22, but various production issues kept the project on hold.) The rapper/singer/talk-show host and Oscar-nominated actress brings a body of work — and a multitude of life experience — to the role as she excavates the soul of a gifted but mercurial and flawed artist.
Latifah, who does her own vocals, gives with her whole body, leaning in to the physicality of a woman unafraid to throw a punch or knock back a few too many, and then sing the blues like someone who does both. There are moments when she summons shivers. When New York music critic Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) blithely tells Bessie he is working on a novel with the N-word in the title, she reflexively throws a drink at him, and the emotions that cross her face are as dramatic as the action itself.
As Viola, the always reliable Alexander (“Treme,” “Scandal”) gets at the depths of a woman who went from tormenting her sister to riding her coattails.
The women are ably supported by several actors, with stand-up comic Mike Epps proving revelatory in a small but crucial dramatic role.
If the script and structure of “Bessie” don’t reinvent the wheel, the radiance of the performances and superb production flourishes, including costumes and set design, help make the film worthy of the Queen at its center and the Empress it celebrates.
Starring: Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Charles S. Dutton, Mike Epps, Tory Kittles, Oliver Platt
Time: Saturday, 8 p.m.