In Bessie, director Dee Rees occasionally, self-consciously resists a conventional “rise, fall and rise again” bio of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah), attempting to disrupt inspirational platitudes with arty ellipses that are sometimes effective, but just as often off-putting. When Bessie appears to walk from a hospital room treating her stab wound straight into a night club, the juxtaposition revealingly approximates a performer’s perception of their life as diametrically composed of shows and experiences that are merely moments in between them. When Bessie introduces her husband, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), to his school-age son with nothing in the way of dramatic preparation, however, one wonders if a reel was somehow skipped, and the emotionalism of the scene is dulled by the curiosity that’s aroused by the arbitrary vagueness.
Rees omits quite a bit of orienting connective narrative tissue, dropping us into Bessie’s life, after a brief flash-forward, as she’s beginning to discover her talent and confidence in the early 1900s as a singer and performer. Initially, this paring strategy encouragingly eliminates much of the standard first act of a famous person’s biography, in which the subject’s talent is reductively alluded to as a potential escape from stereotypically dramatized drudgery. Here, we’re allowed to skip to the good stuff—namely, the songs and showbiz anecdotes. Bessie joins up with Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique), one of the earliest recorded American blues singers, and the latter proceeds to take the former under her wing and teach her about life on the stage. As Ma memorably tells Bessie, every number they perform has the same chord structure and the same subject, so it’s really about the singer reading the needs of the audience. Mo’Nique delivers this speech so vitally that it takes a minute to discern that the scene is nearly identical to that terrific moment in Walk the Line when Sam Phillips coaxes Johnny Cash to put his own pain into his gospel covers.
Bessie and Ma’s partnership dissolves, due to wounded egos, before we’ve acclimated ourselves to their relationship. Rees pushes on to the next plot point before the women’s inevitable rivalry has had a chance to materialize, and the film continues to unfold in a similarly jumpy manner that soon proves irritating. Rees might be omitting exposition, but this evasion of theoretically traditional storytelling doesn’t mean much if the scenes that remain are ultimately the same old juicily stock encounters of every other biopic. Bessie inspirationally bulldozes over everyone with the force of her personality, but the audience isn’t allowed to see the considerable work and preparation that would obviously go into her success as a singer. Rees loses sight of details that could contextualize the story in a manner so as to steer it away from the realm of the mythic toward a textured portrait of the nuts and bolts of Bessie’s business. As the film has it, Bessie is almost literally an overnight sensation, waltzing straight away from her partnership with Ma to a glorious traveling caravan. Each scene is either a positive or negative highpoint, wallowing in extremis that threatens to turn Bessie into a cartoon.
Which is why it’s easy to resent the occasional over-compensatory feint of ambiguity, and wish that the film would either truly tread newish, purely experiential terrain or own up to its formula and simply tell the story with clarity (Bessie’s early death, for example, isn’t even alluded to). The fragmented structure also has an insidious effect: This chronologically free-and-easy greatest-hits-style “empowerment” of Bessie shortchanges the cultural hurdles that she almost certainly weathered as a black, overweight, bisexual woman who often worked Southern venues in the 1920s and 1930s. The precariousness of such an existence is acknowledged exactly once in a confrontation with the KKK at a tent revival, and it’s staged with a pat, reassuring punchline in which Bessie triumphs. A much better scene features the smug writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) approaching Bessie and condescendingly praising her for an impromptu performance while promoting his novel Nigger Heaven. It’s the one moment in the film with sociological teeth.
Despite these liabilities, which include the cinematography (a blend of the painterly, safely prestigious HBO tele-movie house style with the affected noir aesthetic of Rees’s Pariah), Bessie is still remarkably poignant, even if that resonance is somewhat disreputable. As in Chicago, it’s exhilarating to see Latifah in a part that’s big enough for her; she’s such an overwhelmingly powerful actress and singer that she’s often distractingly undernourished by her roles, which usually attempt to assert superficial caps of “type” (generally as the sassy fount of hard-won wisdom) on an ineffable icon. The film’s conception of Bessie is sentimental, but the visceral sensuality of Latifah’s presence eclipses it, as she informs every gesture with body language that’s subtly graceful in its bluntness, clouding where Bessie’s sense of overcompensation for her early family life ends and where her biological hungers begin. An artist this stunning—whether it’s Bessie or Latifah—has little room for pop psych, caring less for the source of their artistic inspiration than for the urgency of its need to bloom.