Review: HBO’s ‘Bessie’ offers a lesson in show biz and the blues

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Early on in “Bessie,” a new HBO biopic premiering Saturday and starring Queen Latifah as the singer Bessie Smith, Smith’s about-to-be mentor, Ma Rainey (played by Mo’Nique), offers a musicological lesson in show business.

“You got ‘The St. Louis Blues,’ ‘The Chicago Blues,’ ‘The Gin House Blues,’ the ‘My Man Done Left Me Blues’ — they all the same song, ain’t they, with the same three chords and you done heard them ‘bout a dozen hundred times from a dozen hundred people. So what make folks want to hear it from you? So you got to put something else in it.”

The blues, that great American invention, that system of expression, of tension and release, that box for putting something into — have had their ups and downs, uptown and down, since emerging into cultural consciousness a century or so ago. But they are always with us, moving on as surely as a C7 chord wants to take you to the F.

B.B. King may have died this week, but Alabama Shakes is on tour.


The film, which is based on “Bessie: Empress of the Blues,” a 1972 biography by Chris Albertson, has been on a long road to fruition; the late Horton Foote (who shares a story credit) took an early swing at a screenplay. Latifah auditioned for it as long ago as 1992; eventually she gained control of the project herself and brought in Dee Rees (“Pariah”) to direct. (Rees also shares credit for the teleplay with Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois.)

“Bessie” follows the familiar “rise and fall and rise” arc of most show business stories, as the baby artist learns her crafts, then gets famous, forgotten and remembered again. (The movie itself is also meant to restore the singer to the world.) “Bessie” cheats a little on that last account, making it seem that Smith was part of the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, but she had died the year before, following a car crash, an event whose details are legendary and disputed and which the film wisely avoids altogether.

It does bear the compromises and conventions that routinely afflict biographical dramas — the editing of life into events, the reordering of facts to make a dramatic or political point (the supportive critic Carl Van Vechten, played by Oliver Platt, comes off poorly here), a more than usually generous use of montage to hurry the story along. Inevitably, there are flashbacks. But it’s no worse in this respect than most such films and better than many — rarely cornball and, indeed, conceivably less melodramatic than the life it portrays. And it’s always well played.

Smith, who was immensely successful in the 1920s and less so in the 1930s, was by all accounts a big, sometimes unruly, unapologetic character; black and bisexual (“I auditions whosoever I please,” is how she puts it), she’s the kind of self-determining outsider heroine who seems to anticipate our own times, needs and interests. Latifah, an extraordinarily charismatic presence herself, rises to meet her.

A fine actress whose film career has lagged somewhat behind her talent, a hip-hop feminist, a singer powerful enough to get the measure of this music, a role model, a brand, she is secure enough also to let go of glamour. (Note her nude scene here, a rebuke almost to the traditional HBO nude scene — it’s a thing.) She sits easily in every scene; it’s a pleasure to watch her.

And she’s well partnered. Michael Kenneth Williams plays her husband and manager Jack Gee — they cheated, they fought. Khandi Alexander plays her resentful and resented sister Violet, Tory Kittles her supportive brother Clarence, Tika Sumpter a composite live-in lover, Mike Epps a bootlegging boyfriend. Charles Dutton has some sharp, funny scenes as Pa Rainey, Ma Rainey’s own husband-manager.

Best of all are Latifah’s scenes with Mo’Nique because their energies fit and because they have the most to do with music and performance and the reasons these women are worth remembering, and re-creating. Now go find the records.

Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd



Where: HBO

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)