It's Day 6 of Girl Week 2016! Yesterday, discussing the Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell vehicle Gentlemen Prefer Blondes got me in a musical mood. I decided to stay in that lane. However, the film I'm discussing today couldn't be any more different if it tried. I'll explain.
Directed by Dee Rees.
2015. Not Rated, 115 minutes.
Michael K. Williams
Charles S. Dutton
We meet Bessie Smith (Latifah) as an aspiring blues singer who regularly plays one of the local dives. The legendary Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique) is one of her idols. When Rainey is town, Bessie takes great pains to introduce herself to the star. Rainey likes her boldness, sees herself in Smith, and takes Smith under her wings. Smith tags along on Rainey's travelling show and soaks up everything she can. Eventually, there is a falling out between the two, as there apparently must always be when we're talking music artists, and Smith hits the road with her own show and becomes a blues legend in her own right. In case you somehow didn't get it, this is based on a true story. It's also an HBO original. Nothing against them, they make fine productions, I'm just a little sad this didn't get a theatrical release.
From a narrative standpoint, director Dee Rees, who also co-wrote the screenplay, keeps things bouncing along with rarely a moment to breathe. It's not that there aren't quiet moments to reflect, because there are. It's because these moments are very well placed within the tight framework of her pacing. In fact, one of the film's most poignant moments is seriously quiet moment as a topless Smith sits in silence staring into a mirror. At that moment, we know all that Smith has done and endured is rushing through her head and she's taking a moment to take it all in. It's no boring moment. It's the star of the show almost literally baring her soul. She practically empties it on the table before her to assess the shape it's in. Of course, this film is not empty. It is so full of life it just moves.
It also grooves with plenty of those blues numbers. When there is fun to be had, this film has plenty of it. When it's time to get serious, Bessie pulls that off, too. The result is an excellent job by Rees of seeming to continuously mash the gas pedal all the way to the floor, but managing to let up at just the right moments to keep the scenery from rushing by too fast. The only time she really falters is near the end of the film when Smith's fortune has dissipated. She goes broke for the same reason lots of Americans did, The Great Depression hit. However, if you don't already have knowledge of that event, and know when it happened, you might miss this fact. The film tells us in too subtle a manner. Many may see it simply as Smith being rich in one scene and flat broke in the next. As big an event as this was in American history, the movie simply can't assume viewer knowledge of it. This really is a small complaint, however. For the rest of the film, the full speed ahead approach works wonderfully.
The cast Rees, and casting director Billy Hopkins, put together is more than up for the task of keeping up. The supporting cast boasts some excellent performances. Michael K. Williams commands the screen as Jack Gee, a guy who rather forcefully inserts himself into Smith's inner circle and becomes her husband. Tika Sumpter gives the best performance I've ever seen of hers as Smith's lover Lucille. Mike Epps is wonderfully restrained as Richard, yet another lover of Smith's. The underappreciated Khandi Alexander has limited screen time as Smith's older sister, and number one hater, Viola. Still, she gives us one of the film's most powerful scenes. All that said, only one threatens to steal the show. That one is Mo'Nique in the role of Ma Rainey. She is present only for most of the first act, and a bit more in the third, but she sets the screen ablaze whenever she appears. This is easily her best work aside from her Oscar-winning turn in Precious. It's a role about as far removed as you can get from that one, as well. But, I will deduct minor points because she clearly didn't do her own singing.
The star of our show, Queen Latifah, did her own singing, and so much more. She fully embodies the spirit of the singer. In her own words, Latifah says of Smith “Whatever she got, it was never enough. Never enough food, enough liquor, enough sex. She always wanted more. She had an incredible appetite. She was never full.”* Latifah brings that across with ease. We come to see Bessie as an insatiable being. Her inability to be satisfied works in her favor, as it helped her become the star she was. It is also to her detriment as it got her into some hairy situations and made relationships even tougher than they normally are. To achieve this, Latifah plays the singer as an almost totally carnal being. This is something quite different for the actress. She has spent nearly her entire career playing women who are full of love to give. She has never played one who consistently expresses herself through sexuality. Even in rom-coms where she is the girl looking for love, there is an innocence about her. It's not quite asexual, but it's more of a fairy-tale vibe she has going. Here, there is none of that. This is raw and guttural. Though Bessie does love, it's not what she normally expresses. She normally expresses lust, whether it's for men, women, food, or drink. Whatever she wants, she takes. It's a role that could've easily become a caricature, yet Latifah manages to create a full human being. She does so by skillfully balancing the many bombastic moments she has with the fewer, but weightier quiet moments. Remember that scene I mentioned of Smith staring in the mirror. Rees deserves credit for sticking with it as it goes on for what feels like quite a length of time. She helps it work with subtle camera movements. However, it's Latifah that makes it work. On the surface, she's doing nothing more than sitting in a chair looking in the mirror. What Latifah makes rise from her depths is all of the emotion of a live lived with such abandoned it's given her mountainous peaks and deep-bottomed valleys.
Reportedly, Latifah has been trying to get this project made for at least 22 years. I say it's a great thing this didn't happen back then. I don't think she could've accomplished what she did, here, all those years ago. For her efforts, Latifah snagged herself a number of Best Actress nominations, Critics' Choice, Primetime Emmy, and Golden Globes among them. She would actually win the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie. She deserves all of it. Before seeing this, I didn't think she could ever surpass her amazing turn as thuggish lesbian bank robber Cleo in Set it Off. I was wrong. She mustered up all of her considerable charm, charisma, and command of the screen to deliver what may wind up as her crowning achievement when it comes to acting.
Latifah is not the only part of this film that earned recognition during Awards season, last year. Including hers, the film earned twelve Primetime Emmy nominations, winning four times. One of those wins was for Outstanding Television Movie. It would also win Best Movie at the Critics' Choice Television Awards. Dee Rees, herself won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing - Television Film. In other words, HBO, Rees, Latifah, and everyone involved hit it out the park on this one.
Thanks for reading, here are yesterday's entries in Girl Week 2016:
Thoughts All Sorts - Augusta, Louise, and Mad (The Keeping Room, 2014)
Speaks in Movie Lines - The List: Hannah and Her Sisters
Speaks in Movie Lines - The List: Hannah and Her Sisters
* This quote is taken from the NY Daily News Article "Queen Latifah did her homework to play blues singer Bessie Smith in HBO's movie 'Bessie.' You can read it by clicking here.