Understanding Bessie Is to Understand the Blues

By Olivia Armstrong


Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as the titular “Empress of the Blues,” intimately depicts the singer’s life and career, which helped define the musical genre. Directed by the increasingly buzzy Dee Rees (Pariah, Mudbound), the Emmy-winning film follows Bessie Smith’s rise as one of the most in-demand entertainers of the 1920s, as well as her stormy and mysterious personal life.

Through director Rees’ distinct, patient eye; we’re placed in the front row of Smith’s surge to fame — and the privacy she had to leave behind. Married to an unfaithful husband, Jack Gee (The Night Of’s Michael Kenneth Williams), Smith also struggled to do right by their vows — striking up relationships with various women in her inner circle, and putting her reputation at risk.

Although the conservative era coerced Smith to keep up as traditional a front with Gee as possible, she went on to be revered as a pioneering bisexual figure of the black community and music industry. Though messy, the singer’s and her husband’s affairs (the two would eventually divorce), forced Smith to turned her personal pain into soulful songs that would cement her legend as the era’s — and the genre’s — distinct voice.

Director Rees, along with co-writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Horton Foote, make sure her legend is not overlooked. Smith, whose troupe of backup singers and musicians was among the largest, grandiose and highest paid of the ‘20s, influenced iconoclasts from Billie Holliday and Janis Joplin to Aretha Franklin.

Whether or not you’re a fan of music biopics or behind-the-album explorations such as The Defiant Ones, chances are you’ll be piqued by Bessie’s story, and Queen Latifah’s Golden Globe-winning embodiment of her.

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