As legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, Queen Latifah (Last Holiday) is a force to be reckoned with. It's the best film showcase yet for Latifah's particular talents, giving her an opportunity to utilize her considerable singing skills, her larger-than-life charisma and her underappreciated talents as a dramatic actress. It's a commanding, vibrant performance that makes an effort to capture the full scope of who Bessie Smith was – a soulful performer, a fearless entrepreneur, a self-absorbed egotist, a pioneer of 20th century blues music, a passionate lover, a philandering scoundrel, an alcoholic and a regular person with regular fears and insecurities. Latifah's depiction of Bessie is great. The rest of Bessie is too familiar.
While Bessie doesn't quite give us the “birth to death” format (surprisingly, it skips over her tragic early death entirely), it does indeed making a stab at tracing the vast majority of Smith's career. It took her longer than it should have to find success in the music business. Being an African-American in the early part of the 20th century was hard, and being a particularly dark-skinned African-American was even harder: Bessie's attempts to find work are derailed by the popular “bag test,” which demands that all performers have a skin tone lighter than that of a brown paper bag. Eventually, Bessie finds a mentor in the form of Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique, Precious), an esteemed traveling performer who helps Bessie cultivate her considerable skills. Alas, when Bessie's popularity starts to overshadow Rainey's, the two part ways. Bessie decides to start her own show, and quickly implements her own bag test: if you're lighter than a brown paper bag, you can't be a part of her show.
The film's examination of racism tends to be a little more nuanced than movies like this often are, going beyond merely addressing the existence of bigotry and digging into the countless ways in which discrimination hampered the lives of African-American performers. There are those who will shout racial slurs and wave torches outside Bessie's tent, yes, but there are also the condescending New York intellectuals (including a character played by an insufferably smug Oliver Platt) whose “socially acceptable” racism proves just as hurtful and dangerous. On more than one occasion, Bessie is given the choice of placating hateful people for the sake of her career or speaking out (which may or may not include throwing a drink in someone's face) for the sake of maintaining her self-respect. She consistently chooses the latter. Even when the going gets rough (and it does, especially once vaudeville begins to fade), she writes her own story.
Early in the film, Bessie meets Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire), a casual admirer who introduces himself to Bessie by making an impassioned speech about his admiration of her talent, her beauty and her business savvy. “Auditions for the show are over,” Bessie says. “I ain't auditioning to be part of the show,” he says. “I'm auditioning to be your man.” Williams delivers his speech with brash, lovestruck conviction, and the moment is striking because it's the first prominent sequence in the film that doesn't feel like a scene from Biopic Screenwriting 101. Early on, Jack is a ferocious presence, matching his passionate affection for Bessie with an equally passionate willingness to do battle with anyone who attempts to mess with his woman. Their relationship has an electric energy, with ferocious verbal and/or physical spats quickly giving way to equally ferocious lovemaking.
Jack is the most memorable of Bessie's romantic interests, but he certainly isn't the only one: Bessie takes more than a few lovers over the course of the film (men and women – the film doesn't shy away from her sexuality or bisexuality), and the movie is typically at its strongest when detailing the specifics of her relationships with them. When the movie zeroes in on characters talking to each other about their feelings, it finds a great deal of honest material (just observe the subtle, powerful scenes between Latifah and Khandi Alexander, playing Bessie's estranged older sister). Director and co-writer Dee Rees uses each new lover who comes along (including a soft-spoken bootlegger played by Mike Epps) to illuminate a different part of Bessie's personality. When he gets back to the big, career-defining moments, he loses the specificity that makes the film's best scenes so special.
Why is it so difficult for musical biopics to avoid feeling so tired and familiar? Yes, the lives of famous musicians inevitably have a lot of overlap, but it goes beyond the familiarity of the “rise and fall” career arc. There's something that just feels so frustratingly routine about the way movies like this strain to name-check other famous figures of the day (one scene goes out of its way to mention Billie Holiday), the way that slow motion and dusty sepia-toned filters get applied to traumatic flashbacks, the way upbeat music kicks in right after a big contract is signed and the way mournful strings appear when someone starts pouring a generous glass of liquor. On their own, these problems are minuscule - perhaps not even problems. Taken collectively, they can make a film feel uninspired.
Don't get me wrong: Bessie isn't a bad movie. Like Ray, Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line and countless others, it's largely a pretty solid flick. Like all of those films, it has some excellent music, some standout moments of cultural insight and some terrific performances (particularly those offered by Latifah, Williams and Alexander). It's worth seeing. Still, so much of it feels so familiar. Man, I wish this movie were as good as Latifah is.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2015