Movie – Bessie Smith was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 1920s and 30s, a major influence on other jazz musicians, and as such one of the originators of all modern popular music. She was born in poverty in Chattanooga, toured with the legendary Ma Rainey, and after signing a record deal with Columbia, became the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time. They called her the Empress of the Blues, and you can still hear why in her recordings — Bessie Smith could rock. Really, the only surprise about her biopic is that it took them until 2015 to make one.
My favorite part of the movie they made of Chicago was Queen Latifah’s single number as the women’s prison warden, so I was thrilled to see her cast as Bessie Smith. She’s outstanding in it, not just in the musical numbers (which look like such a great time) but in portraying the drama of Bessie’s life – a bisexual woman, one who worked hard and partied hard, who struggled with her upbringing and her desire to build a family, who loved being on stage and loved her career. Other standouts in the cast include Michael Kenneth Williams (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Jack Gee, Bessie’s volatile husband, and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey, Bessie’s mentor.
If you’re fond of movies from the 1920s and 30s, be aware that this is not sanitized Hollywood fare; there’s plenty of drinking, fighting, sex, and the kind of raunchy music the Hayes Code would never permit (including one of Ma Rainey’s famous drag numbers). But this is a terrific look at what the 20s and 30s were really like, and a wonderful portrait of an amazing Black woman who deserves more recognition than she gets.