The Story of “The Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Finally, a film about the life of iconic blues singer, Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937) will air on television. And it stars multi-talented Academy Award nominee Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah (“Chicago”), who shines in the challenging role of Bessie Smith. With the story of a fascinating and difficult life, a great supporting cast and impressive music, what could possibly go wrong? Well, something did, unfortunately, since the film drifts on too disjointedly for too long. And then it ends abruptly.

Yet, there is a lot that fans of “The Empress” and “The Queen” will appreciate in “Bessie.” Not only do we watch a brave, rough and talented African-American woman achieve fame despite the odds, but we also glimpse race relations in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s not a pretty picture. And we are treated to Queen Latifah’s strong, clear soulful voice performing a few of Ms. Smith’s best blues numbers. I would have liked to have heard more.

Bessie Smith, born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had suffered the death of both her parents by the time she was nine years old. She and her siblings were raised by Bessie’s harsh older sister, Viola (Khandi Alexander, TV’s “Scandal”). Some effective early scenes show a hungry, anguished Bessie vainly trying to open the icebox that Viola kept locked.

After performing on street corners with her brother, Andrew, her older brother Clarence arranged an audition for her with a small traveling troupe. It was there that Bessie met Ma Rainey (Oscar® winner Mo’Nique, “Precious”), one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and a successful recording star. Authentically portrayed are the interactions between Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, with both their affectionate and competitive aspects.

The main action in the movie explores Bessie’s climb from the bottom of the segregated vaudeville circuit to performing at top venues and recording for Columbia records (but mainly in its “race records” divisions). It doesn’t sugar coat Bessie’s bluntness, fights, and abuse of alcohol and drugs, or the way in which African Americans were treated.

But when the movie delves into Bessie’s shambolic personal life, information becomes confused and confusing. The timeline of the film, though chronological, is unclear, in that we don’t have a sense of how long relationships lasted. Tika Sumpter (“The Haves and the Have Nots”) gives a good performance as Lucille, a dancer and Bessie’s longtime lover. Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Jack Gee, Bessie’s abusive husband, and Mike Epps (“Survivor’s Remorse”) is Richard, a bootlegger who seemed to have sincerely loved Bessie.

After taking way too long to follow Ms. Smith’s many vicissitudes, “Bessie” ends unexpectedly on a sentimental high point in her life. It’s a surprising decision by filmmaker Dee Rees (“Pariah”), since Bessie’s sudden death in a car accident has been the subject of falsehood and fiction over the years. For example, Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play, “The Death of Bessie Smith” reiterates the now discredited report that Bessie died because she had been refused admission to a “whites only” hospital.

I would have ended the movie in August 1970, when a tombstone was finally erected on Bessie Smith’s grave, paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who had done housework for Ms. Smith.

My recommendation is to give “Bessie” a try for at least the first hour to see Queen Latifah’s performance and learn about a bit about Bessie Smith’s life and times, and turn in off if and when it starts to drag.


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