Bessie is the type of film which doesn’t have the same dramatic flair of big screen biopics, but the actors try to compensate by bringing the dead back to life and reintroduce them to a whole new generation.
Review (with Spoilers) – Below
Characters & Story
It all begins in 1913 when Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) was just another jazz singer singing the same old tunes as everyone else and was just as unremarkable like everyone else. That is until she met, and attached herself to, Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique). Under her, she learns how to be a performer and not just a singer and from Ma Rainey’s tutelage, she begins to speed straight toward stardom.
However, while her professional life is shown as rather smooth, outside of the Klan showing up to one of her shows, her personal life has quite a bit of drama. For one, her mother died when she was young and she was raised by Viola (Kandi Alexander), who is mean as a wet cat. Then, on top of that, throughout her life, she juggles multiple lovers. Some female, like Lucille (Tika Sumpter), and others male like Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), who played a strong role in her career, or part time lovers like Richard (Mike Epps), who she had as a side piece.
Altogether, though, what you are left with is a portrait of a star of the past whose life, like many a blues singer, ended far too soon.
If there is one thing which goes without say, it is that both Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique seem to shine when put into dramatic roles. For while both have the opportunity to present comedic moments, it is when they are butting heads, tired, or frustrated when they both shine. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beauty of their sisterhood. Because, in the movie anyway, it is Ma Rainey who gives Bessie a mother figure, or what some may call the ideal big sister.
Their relationship aside, you’ll surely enjoy Latifah on her own as she tries to make Bessie seem like someone you should have been known vs. a name which makes you say “who?” This is done by the film trying to establish that just like Janet Jackson came before Beyoncé, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey, came before the more well-known jazz legends of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Being that Bessie Smith isn’t a go-to name when it comes to the topic of jazz, in comparison to the aforementioned Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it made it a bit harder to get into the movie. Especially since it had a lot of the usual things you expect from a biopic. There are flashbacks to a troubled childhood, an almost meteoric rise to fame, a lot of fallouts with family members, substance abuse, and enough infidelity to make it look like being famous and having affairs is synonymous. Thus making it seem that perhaps the sole thing which may set Bessie apart is that it features a historic black figure who was a queer woman of color.
Set that little aspect aside, though, and all you are left with is a formula. Which makes the addition of the music not being catchy, or the type to stir emotion, another negative on the film. Though to be completely honest, as much as you can see that Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique were comfortable in their roles, and likable at times, strangely neither bring you to the point of tears nor you wanting to read up on these two precursors to the more name recognizable jazz legends.
Overall: TV Viewing
While there are good performances from Mo’Nique and Queen Latifah, I don’t feel there isn’t enough given by the film to make this something worth recommending. For whether it is the singing, the story, or many of Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique’s costars, at the end of the day, a lot of what we are given is just adequate. To the point, I wonder if maybe this would have done better as a mini-series. That way the movie wouldn’t have rested so heavily on Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique, and perhaps there could have been stronger co-stars which could have ultimately made a stronger film.