Queen Latifa’s ‘Bessie’ shows powerful, vulnerable, bisexual woman of color in roaring 1920′s America
In 1993, Queen Latifah released the song ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’.
It won her a Grammy and was her most commercially successful song to date. In that same year, Living Single premiered on FOX. A series, created by Yvette Lee Bowser (A Different World), which starred Queen Latifah and followed six African-American twenty-somethings living in a brownstone in Brooklyn. She was 23-year- old.
This was one year after she had been offered the role of Bessie Smith in a biopic about the late, great Blues singer.
Bessie premiered on HBO on May 16, 22 years later.
Written and directed by Dee Rees (Pariah), the film not only tells Bessie’s story, it breathes life into her.
Between Rees’ honest writing and Latifah’s strong performance, the viewer gets the opportunity to see a black woman in a way she’s not often seen in mainstream media, as wholeheartedly, unapologetically herself. Fearless and vulnerable, Queen Latifah is Bessie Smith.
Bessie is a star and an artist, but she is also a mother, sister and best friend. She’s also an addict, a survivor, a bisexual woman of color and refuses to accept the expectations of her set by anyone. She is conscious of the world she lives and how her identity is rooted in that, but it does not control who she is. Her story is hers alone.
Rees’ writing does not allow for any generalizations of the black female experience, but tells a singular story that resonates with a broad audience because of its many dimensions. Bessie confronts members of the Klu Klux Klan who show up at a show in North Carolina. Once they leave, she goes right back to Preachin’ the Blues because she is strong in who she is.
She breaks down when she loses her son because she knows pain and loss intimately. It is the parts of her that are not explicitly stated, but inferred because of Dee Rees’ storytelling and Queen Latifah’s talent, that allows Bessie’s life to affect others.
Latifah’s character is a strong black woman not because she can take a hit, or because she has struggled so much that she is emotionally stunted (both of which are portrayed brutally in the film). But Bessie is a strong character because her story is intersectional.
It addresses how all of the aspects of her identity have made her who she is without allowing any one aspect too over power over how her story is presented. The whole of her identity is always more important that the individual sectors of it.
The fact that she is lying in bed with one of her partners, who is a woman, does not make them shy away from discussing race. Two black women, Bessie and Lucille (Tika Sumpter), lie next to each other discussing the fetisization of dark skin following a scene featuring the ‘brown paper bag test’ in which Bessie dissmisses an aspiring back up dancer because her skin is lighter than a paper bag.
Latifah’s choice to play a bisexual black woman artist living in the 1920s gives a voice to so many who go underrepresented. The way that it is written shows Dee Rees’ brilliance. The execution and the life that is given to Bessie’s story shows Queen Latifah’s understanding that this sort of representation is extremely important.
Anyone familiar with Rees’ 2011 coming of age film Pariah, which tells the story of a young black girl from Brooklyn balancing family, friends and learning to embrace her identity as a lesbian, knows her characters do not satisfy stereotypes or fit molds.
She is able to craft incredibly strong characters whose lives do not revolve around a single aspect of their identity, but address all of them in a way that is believable and true to their humanity.
“Actually, its pretty simple. Call them whatever they want to be called.”June 30, 2015
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