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A movie about some aspect of Bessie Smith's life is decades overdue, considering the broad cultural shadow she casts. A few episodes of her tumultuous life explored in depth would resonate, but like too many biopics, this one suffers from the creators' attempt to tell the whole story, or most it, and the results are mechanical, predictable and force-fitted into various agendas. Most biopic makers stumble upon these rocks. Their task is difficult.
From the start of "Bessie" we are told five things over and over: Bessie was haunted throughout her life by memories of the mother she lost as a child. Bessie had lesbian dalliances. Bessie loved to drink straight gin, preferably right out of the bootlegger's glass jar. Bessie had a violent temper. Bessie was a fiercely independent, take-charge kind of gal. But the main thing about Bessie that is presented only sporadically and by rote is her distinctive singing and how it came to be that way. Queen Latifah, who would seem to be a fine choice for this role, does suggest Smith in girth and even in facial features, but despite a strong voice which she tries to adapt to the Smith groove, she never makes us feel the rafters rising as the Smith legend tells us. The only time she approaches the true Smith sound is near the end when hard living had begun to ravage her vocal chords. And in the early scenes Latifah, given her age and physicality, cannot possibly persuade us that she is a young, unformed artist-to-be.
The attempt to demonstrate how she gradually upstaged her mentor, Ma Rainey (played to the hilt by Mo'Nique), is episodic and sketchy, not organic or dramatic; the same goes for the re-enactments of Smith's altercations with members of the high-toned Manhattan art scene in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some good substance is made of her volatile love affairs with men (Michael Kenneth Williams and Mike Epps). But her mid-career slump is presented as with no explanation or cause, other than perhaps the Great Depression. SPOILER ALERT: Her tragic death (a potential movie in itself) is entirely absent, as "Bessie" ends in mid-air, or mid- road, as we are left with her musings about where she will go next after a picnic with her former bootlegger.
So, a point has been scored for Bessie Smith. It opens a conversation. But more is needed.
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