DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews
 
BESSIE (TV MOVIE) (director/writer: Dee Rees; screenwriters: story by Dee Rees & Horton Foote/Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois/based on "Bessie: Empress of the Blues," a biography by Chris Albertson; cinematographer: Jeff Jur; editor: Brian A. Kates; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Queen Latifah (Bessie Smith), Tika Sumpter (Lucille), Bryan Greenberg (John Hammond), Michael Kenneth Williams (Jack Gee), Mo'Nique (Ma Rainey), Mike Epps (Richard), Oliver Platt (Carl Van Vechten), Charles S. Dutton (William 'Pa' Rainey), Khandi Alexander (Viola), Tory Kittles (Clarence), Jeremie Harris (Langston Hughes), Levi Erik (Benny Goodman) ; Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Ron Schmidt; HBO; 2015)

"Queen Latifah is convincing as Bessie."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A watchable but uneven HBO television movie based on the 1972 biography by Chris Albertson called "Bessie: Empress of the Blues." The choppy biopic of the pioneering blues singer from the '20s & '30s is earnestly directed by Dee Rees ("Pariah") and written by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. It's based on a draft written by the late playwright Horton Foote in the 1990s.

The flawed film tells in a sexually charged way the familiar story of the colorful blues legend Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah). Bessie was born in Tennessee and when both parents died the child was raised by her vicious older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander). Rees crams in Bessie's  up and down life story in a jarring and rushed way from the time she was playing clubs in 1913 Atlanta to her later record contract from Columbia to her reaching the top rung in the 1920s as a blues singer until her downfall and comeback in the 1930s. It takes note of her high-living in stardom, her debaucheries, and her descent because of alcoholism, a troubled life and the Great Depression. But it inexplicably omits telling of her untimely death in 1937 at 43 because of a car accident.

We follow the dark-skinned black woman's modest start, her desperation of growing up without her mom, her big career breaks, her bisexuality (her main lover is played by Tika Sumpter), a confrontation with the KKK and her struggle against the racism of the country and the music industry.

Tory Kittles plays her loyal brother Clarence. Mo'Nique plays Ma Rainey, her mentor and rival. Jack Gee is played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who was a security guard and then her manager and later her first husband until he just wasn't.

Queen Latifah is convincing as Bessie. Mo’Nique gives an energetic crowd-pleasing performance as an experienced traveling vaudeville entertainer. But the film's doldrums can be blamed on an undeveloped script by too many different writers with no single viewpoint. Nevertheless the unfocused pic deserves to be seen because of its treasured blues singer with the great voice, who made a name for herself when the country wasn't receptive to female black singers

n 1913 Atlanta, up and coming blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) struggles to gain respect in venues that prefer black women who weigh less with lighter skin tones. Formidable and self-determined, Bessie inserts herself into the company of Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), a seasoned and famous personality who allows Bessie to travel with her troupe and foster her talent. Eventually, Bessie begins to outshine Rainey on her own stage, causing a dissolution between the performers. Branching out on her own and with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) as her manager, Bessie begins her own ascent. With her girlfriend Lucille (Tika Sumpter) at her side, Bessie acquires an eager male suitor, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), a man who eventually marries and manages her before their relationship begins to crumble as well.

As the nonconformist, black, bisexual singer, there’s something nagging at the periphery of this handsome fantasy, namely all those difficulties and social hurdles Smith conquered to alight into the zeitgeist. It’s not that we need to see suffering to appreciate advancement, but since many are unaware of Smith, the film’s petty acknowledgments, including her lightly handled alcohol issues, avoid the kinds of confrontations where Smith would not have been able to usurp control. As opposed to Billie Holiday’s infamous drug abuse issues in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Rees skirts too comfortably around unappealing instances.

But the actual elephant in the room has little to do with Rees. As Smith, Queen Latifah gives one of her most rounded performances, exuding traces of vulnerability often absent from her previous cinematic endeavors. This reaches a perpetual zenith when we find the star gazing upon herself in her dressing room mirror, stark naked. The camera lingers on Latifah, and it’s an arresting, bold moment. But whatever heights the actress reaches here, Bessie always feels like an empty victory. Unfair as it may be, Queen Latifah’s staunch refusal to address questions pertaining to her own sexual identity infects and taints this representation of the undaunted blues singer. If anything, Bessie feels like a rehearsed opportunity for Latifah to take advantage of a moment and perhaps finally come out—but whatever the case, the provocative representation of Bessie and the life she lived is only set up to be outshined by either Latifah’s continued silence on the matter or her eventual vocalization.

We watch Smith confront the KKK as they attempt to burn down the tent she’s performing in. We smirk at her dismissal of the disgusting writer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt), a man she brazenly calls out for a remark on Langston Hughes with “Then who’s the best normal poet?” And it’s utterly refreshing to see such a strong personality refuse to be victimized for her race, gender, or sexual orientation (even if the film declaws her surroundings). But it’s hard to imagine that a woman like Smith, depicted as staunchly nonconformist, wouldn’t be rolling in her grave to see Queen Latifah depicting her onscreen.

Other cast members are uniformly shaped, though Michael Kenneth Williams tends to stand out as Bessie’s eventual husband and staunch supporter. As her girlfriend, the beautiful Tika Sumpter is too distracting for the period, even if she is a brightly glowing presence whenever on-screen. Mike Epps appears late in the film as a bootlegger who falls for Bessie, but their relationship is related in paraphrase.

Blink and you’ll miss Charles S. Dutton, but the film serves to be a better comeback for the talents of Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. Though the role isn’t much of a stretch for the actress, there’s a nagging suspicion that Rainey’s story is in greater need of cinematic representation than Bessie’s. A scene that finds Rainey following a performance in male drag is oddly effective, as both she and Smith kiki with a bevy of beautiful women. She advises the tentative Smith, nervous to be seen gay in public, “they have to prove it on you.”

Age progression issues tend to distract when it comes to Latifah and Khandi Alexander, especially considering Rees’ refusal to adhere to the standards of the biopic. This maintains a strange mixture of innovation and frustration as the film draws on, especially concerning more important instances from her life, such as the adoption of a child, and the onset of the Great Depression. Her star on the rise again in the third act, we’re treated to a theater manager (Bryan Greenberg) scouting her out for her inclusion in a racially integrated show, and moments later she performs to rousing applause from a white audience while the camera pans up to the blacks in the balcony.

With too much unexplained, these odd jumps and cuts tend to drain the emotional punch of Bessie, especially as we’re paraded through only her overwhelmingly successful moments, made to look deliriously easy to achieve. To be shackled to the narrative of a real life personality is difficult material to represent on screen, even with the freedom allotted by HBO. DoP Jeff Jur doesn’t achieve the visual beauty that Bradford Young created on Rees’ Pariah, but the film opens mysteriously, on the stage-lit upturned face of Bessie in a feather boa and Cleopatra wig. Moments later, her shadow haunts the doorway to her empty home, a specter on the periphery of her own story. There are several moments of innovative visuals in Bessie, a sometimes powerful glance at a trailblazer deserving of greater credit.

- See more at: http://www.ioncinema.com/reviews/bessie-review#sthash.Y30PxpUS.dpuf

n 1913 Atlanta, up and coming blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) struggles to gain respect in venues that prefer black women who weigh less with lighter skin tones. Formidable and self-determined, Bessie inserts herself into the company of Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), a seasoned and famous personality who allows Bessie to travel with her troupe and foster her talent. Eventually, Bessie begins to outshine Rainey on her own stage, causing a dissolution between the performers. Branching out on her own and with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) as her manager, Bessie begins her own ascent. With her girlfriend Lucille (Tika Sumpter) at her side, Bessie acquires an eager male suitor, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), a man who eventually marries and manages her before their relationship begins to crumble as well.

As the nonconformist, black, bisexual singer, there’s something nagging at the periphery of this handsome fantasy, namely all those difficulties and social hurdles Smith conquered to alight into the zeitgeist. It’s not that we need to see suffering to appreciate advancement, but since many are unaware of Smith, the film’s petty acknowledgments, including her lightly handled alcohol issues, avoid the kinds of confrontations where Smith would not have been able to usurp control. As opposed to Billie Holiday’s infamous drug abuse issues in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Rees skirts too comfortably around unappealing instances.

But the actual elephant in the room has little to do with Rees. As Smith, Queen Latifah gives one of her most rounded performances, exuding traces of vulnerability often absent from her previous cinematic endeavors. This reaches a perpetual zenith when we find the star gazing upon herself in her dressing room mirror, stark naked. The camera lingers on Latifah, and it’s an arresting, bold moment. But whatever heights the actress reaches here, Bessie always feels like an empty victory. Unfair as it may be, Queen Latifah’s staunch refusal to address questions pertaining to her own sexual identity infects and taints this representation of the undaunted blues singer. If anything, Bessie feels like a rehearsed opportunity for Latifah to take advantage of a moment and perhaps finally come out—but whatever the case, the provocative representation of Bessie and the life she lived is only set up to be outshined by either Latifah’s continued silence on the matter or her eventual vocalization.

We watch Smith confront the KKK as they attempt to burn down the tent she’s performing in. We smirk at her dismissal of the disgusting writer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt), a man she brazenly calls out for a remark on Langston Hughes with “Then who’s the best normal poet?” And it’s utterly refreshing to see such a strong personality refuse to be victimized for her race, gender, or sexual orientation (even if the film declaws her surroundings). But it’s hard to imagine that a woman like Smith, depicted as staunchly nonconformist, wouldn’t be rolling in her grave to see Queen Latifah depicting her onscreen.

Other cast members are uniformly shaped, though Michael Kenneth Williams tends to stand out as Bessie’s eventual husband and staunch supporter. As her girlfriend, the beautiful Tika Sumpter is too distracting for the period, even if she is a brightly glowing presence whenever on-screen. Mike Epps appears late in the film as a bootlegger who falls for Bessie, but their relationship is related in paraphrase.

Blink and you’ll miss Charles S. Dutton, but the film serves to be a better comeback for the talents of Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. Though the role isn’t much of a stretch for the actress, there’s a nagging suspicion that Rainey’s story is in greater need of cinematic representation than Bessie’s. A scene that finds Rainey following a performance in male drag is oddly effective, as both she and Smith kiki with a bevy of beautiful women. She advises the tentative Smith, nervous to be seen gay in public, “they have to prove it on you.”

Age progression issues tend to distract when it comes to Latifah and Khandi Alexander, especially considering Rees’ refusal to adhere to the standards of the biopic. This maintains a strange mixture of innovation and frustration as the film draws on, especially concerning more important instances from her life, such as the adoption of a child, and the onset of the Great Depression. Her star on the rise again in the third act, we’re treated to a theater manager (Bryan Greenberg) scouting her out for her inclusion in a racially integrated show, and moments later she performs to rousing applause from a white audience while the camera pans up to the blacks in the balcony.

With too much unexplained, these odd jumps and cuts tend to drain the emotional punch of Bessie, especially as we’re paraded through only her overwhelmingly successful moments, made to look deliriously easy to achieve. To be shackled to the narrative of a real life personality is difficult material to represent on screen, even with the freedom allotted by HBO. DoP Jeff Jur doesn’t achieve the visual beauty that Bradford Young created on Rees’ Pariah, but the film opens mysteriously, on the stage-lit upturned face of Bessie in a feather boa and Cleopatra wig. Moments later, her shadow haunts the doorway to her empty home, a specter on the periphery of her own story. There are several moments of innovative visuals in Bessie, a sometimes powerful glance at a trailblazer deserving of greater credit.

- See more at: http://www.ioncinema.com/reviews/bessie-review#sthash.Y30PxpUS.dpuf

n 1913 Atlanta, up and coming blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) struggles to gain respect in venues that prefer black women who weigh less with lighter skin tones. Formidable and self-determined, Bessie inserts herself into the company of Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), a seasoned and famous personality who allows Bessie to travel with her troupe and foster her talent. Eventually, Bessie begins to outshine Rainey on her own stage, causing a dissolution between the performers. Branching out on her own and with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) as her manager, Bessie begins her own ascent. With her girlfriend Lucille (Tika Sumpter) at her side, Bessie acquires an eager male suitor, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), a man who eventually marries and manages her before their relationship begins to crumble as well.

As the nonconformist, black, bisexual singer, there’s something nagging at the periphery of this handsome fantasy, namely all those difficulties and social hurdles Smith conquered to alight into the zeitgeist. It’s not that we need to see suffering to appreciate advancement, but since many are unaware of Smith, the film’s petty acknowledgments, including her lightly handled alcohol issues, avoid the kinds of confrontations where Smith would not have been able to usurp control. As opposed to Billie Holiday’s infamous drug abuse issues in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Rees skirts too comfortably around unappealing instances.

But the actual elephant in the room has little to do with Rees. As Smith, Queen Latifah gives one of her most rounded performances, exuding traces of vulnerability often absent from her previous cinematic endeavors. This reaches a perpetual zenith when we find the star gazing upon herself in her dressing room mirror, stark naked. The camera lingers on Latifah, and it’s an arresting, bold moment. But whatever heights the actress reaches here, Bessie always feels like an empty victory. Unfair as it may be, Queen Latifah’s staunch refusal to address questions pertaining to her own sexual identity infects and taints this representation of the undaunted blues singer. If anything, Bessie feels like a rehearsed opportunity for Latifah to take advantage of a moment and perhaps finally come out—but whatever the case, the provocative representation of Bessie and the life she lived is only set up to be outshined by either Latifah’s continued silence on the matter or her eventual vocalization.

We watch Smith confront the KKK as they attempt to burn down the tent she’s performing in. We smirk at her dismissal of the disgusting writer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt), a man she brazenly calls out for a remark on Langston Hughes with “Then who’s the best normal poet?” And it’s utterly refreshing to see such a strong personality refuse to be victimized for her race, gender, or sexual orientation (even if the film declaws her surroundings). But it’s hard to imagine that a woman like Smith, depicted as staunchly nonconformist, wouldn’t be rolling in her grave to see Queen Latifah depicting her onscreen.

Other cast members are uniformly shaped, though Michael Kenneth Williams tends to stand out as Bessie’s eventual husband and staunch supporter. As her girlfriend, the beautiful Tika Sumpter is too distracting for the period, even if she is a brightly glowing presence whenever on-screen. Mike Epps appears late in the film as a bootlegger who falls for Bessie, but their relationship is related in paraphrase.

Blink and you’ll miss Charles S. Dutton, but the film serves to be a better comeback for the talents of Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. Though the role isn’t much of a stretch for the actress, there’s a nagging suspicion that Rainey’s story is in greater need of cinematic representation than Bessie’s. A scene that finds Rainey following a performance in male drag is oddly effective, as both she and Smith kiki with a bevy of beautiful women. She advises the tentative Smith, nervous to be seen gay in public, “they have to prove it on you.”

Age progression issues tend to distract when it comes to Latifah and Khandi Alexander, especially considering Rees’ refusal to adhere to the standards of the biopic. This maintains a strange mixture of innovation and frustration as the film draws on, especially concerning more important instances from her life, such as the adoption of a child, and the onset of the Great Depression. Her star on the rise again in the third act, we’re treated to a theater manager (Bryan Greenberg) scouting her out for her inclusion in a racially integrated show, and moments later she performs to rousing applause from a white audience while the camera pans up to the blacks in the balcony.

With too much unexplained, these odd jumps and cuts tend to drain the emotional punch of Bessie, especially as we’re paraded through only her overwhelmingly successful moments, made to look deliriously easy to achieve. To be shackled to the narrative of a real life personality is difficult material to represent on screen, even with the freedom allotted by HBO. DoP Jeff Jur doesn’t achieve the visual beauty that Bradford Young created on Rees’ Pariah, but the film opens mysteriously, on the stage-lit upturned face of Bessie in a feather boa and Cleopatra wig. Moments later, her shadow haunts the doorway to her empty home, a specter on the periphery of her own story. There are several moments of innovative visuals in Bessie, a sometimes powerful glance at a trailblazer deserving of greater credit.

- See more at: http://www.ioncinema.com/reviews/bessie-review#sthash.Y30PxpUS.dpuf

REVIEWED ON 3/9/2017       GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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