May 17, 2015

Channel Surfing: "Bessie"

Queen Latifah
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
A few years ago, director Dee Rees made her debut with Pariah; a film about a black teenage lesbian. It was a striking film that garnered her immediate attention and left many wondering what her next move would be. While the idea of tackling Bessie, a film about another black lesbian, may be a tad predictable based on subject matter, it makes sense why she would want to make it. With Queen Latifah wanting to make it reportedly since 1992, the film has long been a passion project that finally culminates in a solid HBO movie that also features great performers like Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo'Nique playing historical figures that have influenced the titular blues singer Bessie Smith (Latifah). The results are stellar, if stuck in a conventional film.
The most notable highlights come in the relationship of Smith and Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique), who helps to give the young performer her sultry persona and the confidence to be a star. While Smith's sexuality isn't ever explored at great length, it does influence her actions and the conflicting nature of her rise to success. Does she sign for Black Swan Records or sign onto a subsidiary of a white record label and perform under a derogatory name? These are the main struggles of the film, which manages to get by on the performances for most of the film's running time. Latifah owns the screen and strikes confidence in her every movement, even if her advanced age makes the younger years a little less convincing. She even performs the music with passion and creates something all her own in the process.
It makes sense why Latifah would want to make Bessie. Smith is a particularly confident woman in an era where everything stood against her. She is seen countless times saving the day. Her sassy remarks give her a flourishing personality and her fashion makes her a trendsetter. While Smith hasn't become the household name that the likes of even Billie Holiday has, her story seems to be worth telling only because she's an underdog who reached a modicum of respect. This isn't Ray in which she writes a new state song anthem. She simply finds happiness and ends the story with her own personal achievements.
Bessie doesn't necessarily have much else interesting to say. The direction is fine. The cinematography and period sets look great. There's a few emotional beats that transition the film and keep the story from being too simplistic. However, it is Latifah's performance that outshines everything about the film and makes the final half a little laborious. It isn't necessarily to a detrimental extent, but it still manages to wear down an otherwise great performance that reminds you that when necessary, Latifah can bring something powerful to a role. In the end, Bessie is another so-so biopic that survives on the charisma of its acting more than its story.
Is Bessie a great biopic? Not exactly. Latifah definitely makes the most of her project 23 years in the making. However, it is more of a conventional story that captures the basic outline of its protagonist. The issue isn't in Bessie Smith herself, but that the underdog story is one that has been told so many times that it's hard to get the beats right. Would the film had worked better when Latifah was younger? It's hard to tell, especially since her success in Chicago and Hairspray is what inevitably makes her confidence so enduring. The one benefit is that it isn't as forgettable as other HBO biopics like The Girl or Phil Spector, likely because there's actually some heart in here. If anything, it is a reminder of how a great cast can elevate basic material.

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