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Queen Latifah (Chicago) stars as the title character Bessie Smith in HBO's Bessie, a biopic on the life of the American legendary blues singer. The film focuses on Smith's transformation from a struggling young singer into the "Empress of the Blues," one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920's. Times were rough for ol Bessie growing up and even after her rise to fame. Her parents and brother died when she was young and was looked after by her older sister, this on top of the fact that she was black, bisexual and growing up in Tennessee in the mid 1900's lets just say they could of gone a lot better for her. To help ends meet for her family Bessie and her brother sung and danced in a duet on the streets of Chattanooga. By 1912 Smith was a known singer in her part of town, delighting people with her voice and dancing, well most people. Although she had a great voice a lot of people were judgmental about her appearance. One scene in the movie she is mortified during an audition when she is given the paper bag test. Basically they hold a regular brown paper lunch bag up to her face, if her skin tone is lighter than the bag, she passes. They only wanted light skin black preforming; Smith didn't pass and is laughed off stage. Little did the producer know that Smith had a volatile temper and proceeded to push him down to the floor.
Her temper was pretty notorious back in the day, not saying she would fly off the handle for no reason, no. As a matter of fact (from what the film showed me) all of her violent outbursts were for good reason. The opening shot of the film, Smith is in the alleyway of a performance making out with a man, he wants to take it to third base, Bessie doesn't, so the man punches her in the face and leaves a scar on her head. She returns the favor by cutting his thigh with a piece of broken glass. Her temper would catch up with her though, one night after a successful performance she and a large group of people are partying backstage when another man calls Bessie a "fat bitch." Bessie corrects the man by slapping him and is just about to bash him over the head with a vase when she takes pity and tells him to leave. The man waits hours for her outside and stabs her prison style as she leaves the party. She survives of course, but takes a licking.
I loved the movie Bessie for the most part. All the performances from everybody in the film were fantastic, literally everybody brought they're "A" game. The one performance I was most impressed with was Mo'Nique (Precious) as Ma Rainey, Bessie protégé. Rainey was the first person to give Bessie a job as a dancer for her troupe having already earned success as a blues singer. She would later take note of Bessie's great singing voice and move her up the ladder from dancer to singer. Mo'Nique absolutely nails it as Rainey, a fair but tough business lady. Before Bessie, Rainey was the hot ticket in town. She was so hot she was able to waltz into any white owned dance club and make a list of demands including higher pay, and they would give into her. This performance proves that her academy award for the movie Precious was well deserved.
One big drawback for the film was that it felt extremely rushed. I know it's often hard to make a two-hour film chronicling a person's entire life, but scene and characters seemed to come and go within a matter of minute. It has also been pointed out on many message boards that this film to a lot of liberty in what actually happened in Bessie life, mostly her relationship with Ma Rainey. In the film it makes it look like Rainey was the one that taught Bessie to sing, when in real life this wasn't the case. The DVD for Bessie is barebones; a short documentary into the making of the film featuring interviews with the stars is all we get. Picture and audio are top notch, but I would have liked some more extra features.
With all that said Bessie is still an entertaining film with excellent acting. It probably won't be one you go back to watch that often, but if you're a fan of the blues, this movie should tickle your fancy
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