“Bessie,” the rich biopic of singer Bessie Smith that premieres on HBO this Sunday, is the culmination of a decades-long dream for its star, Queen Latifah. The film, which touches on everything from the chicanery of vaudeville bookers, to the persistence of the sharecropping system, to the racism of early white blues enthusiasts, is a fitting reintroduction to an important American musical figure. “Bessie” also marks the arrival of director Dee Rees, with her striking sense of visual details and sharp sense of history and economics, onto a national stage where she deserves to be a major figure.
Rees is hardly a first-time director: she’s directed three short films, the documentary “Eventual Salvation,” and most significantly, “Pariah,” an exceptionally naturalistic and beautifully acted story about a young woman named Alike’s (Adepero Oduye) gradual coming out. But while “Pariah” is a small jewel of a movie, “Bessie” has enormous scope and a deep, experienced cast, including Khandi Alexander as Smith’s venomous sister Viola, Michael K. Williams as Smith’s eventual husband, Jack Gee, and Mo’Nique, magnificent as Ma Rainey, who tutors a young Smith in the art of the blues and helps her recover after setbacks. To watch “Bessie” is to watch Rees’s talent out to play on a much larger field.
In early May, FX announced that Rees, working with Shonda Rhimes, will be developing a miniseries adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” for the network. The book is an economic history of migration, following black Southerners as they move north and west in search of jobs and in flight from discrimination and violence. It’s the sort of material that could get watered down to the point of meaninglessness. But “Bessie” suggests that in Rees’s hands, “The Warmth of Other Suns” could be something very special indeed.
The level of granular detail Rees works into “Bessie” is astonishing: If the movie were science-fiction, we’d be praising its world-building. When Smith joins Ma Rainey on tour, the older singer gives her a lesson in the economics of the vaudeville circuit. “She needs to understand why TOBA stands for Tough On Black Asses,” Rainey tells a representative of the Theater Owners Booking Association in one early scene, after the man tries to fleece her on her share of the box office. When Bessie starts her own company, she reverses the paper bag test, historically used to screen out performers with darker skin, refusing to hire anyone lighter than the paper next to his or her face. Black Swan Records, in which W.E.B. Du Bois was a shareholder and director, asks Smith to audition for the company, then rejects her “down-home sound,” writing that it hopes “you can appreciate the difficulty of our decision, and the choices” — in favor of more polished, lighter-skin singers — “that must be made in the name of progress.” White critic Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) praises Smith’s “dusky pathos” and then is shocked when she throws a drink in his face. Sharecroppers line the railroad tracks Smith travels over, stopping their work to wave, and the radio talks about the details of the market during the Depression.
This sort of detail could swamp a lesser movie. But Rees manages to hold on to a delicate balance: Economics and culture inform Smith’s character, rather than subsuming her in polemic or history lesson.
“I decided to treat it as matter of fact — this was how the world was. I tried to contextualize her without pointing to it,” Rees explained when we spoke last month. “She’s on the train; they’re going to be going through fields. This is how people feel about her. … During the Great Depression sequence, this is what’s going on, this is the news.”
It’s not simply the sense of history that distinguishes “Bessie,” but the attitude. Biopics often try to position their subjects as universal figures, even if that means that mainstream culture is tailoring a great man or woman’s words or actions to its own ends: Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” for example, shows President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) borrowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) phrasing. “Bessie” and the woman herself take a decidedly different position. While some white fans embrace her, taking their fondness for Smith’s music as evidence of their own enlightenment, and a white promoter eventually helps revive Smith’s stalled career, “Bessie” suggests that such enthusiasts are a sideshow to the black audiences who were Smith’s passion.
“I didn’t think that she was concerned with the white gaze,” Rees said. “She didn’t care to use records. The records were just a promotional tool to get people to come to tent shows…I wanted to show that kind of contradiction — even the supporters of the arts and the proclaimed promoters of the Harlem Renaissance, the white guy who’s putting black artists on is misguided…He has to say Ethel Waters is best, he has to pitch black artists against each other. …[Mainstream success] happens for her, but it’s not the thing she’s working for. She’s trying to connect with her people; she’s singing her truth.”
Politics and perspective are important, but they’re also not everything. And simply as an aesthetic object, “Bessie” is a beautiful movie, opening with Smith awash in cool blue light before an enormous audience and ending with her in clear, pale sunlight.
“In ‘Pariah’ we used a lot of available light,” Rees explained of the way she uses color schemes in her movies. “Alike is a chameleon, she’s painted by the world around her: she’s pink, she’s purple, she’s green…[In ‘Bessie, the color scheme is] supposed to go from vaudeville, more monochromatic rough edges, it looks like she sewed a curtain together for an outfit. The second act is more metallic…everything’s great, but it’s got decay inside. In the third act we go to pastels…The greens come in, and we see Bessie in harmony in her landscape as opposed to opposed to it…The tent scene, I wanted it to be evangelical. I did use gold in the lighting, so it feels like a miracle. Bessie’s in white and gold and she’s shimmering, and she’s almost like a deity. She’s using the idiom of the church to talk about sexual liberation. It’s ecclesiastical.”
Rees chose her cameras with the same care. “I used a lot of Steadicam work because I wanted to have this speed of life,” she said. “This woman who is beloved at stage and lonely at home, is a champion in one moment and a bully in the next. She’s loved, she’s alone. She is empty and in the moment she’s completely filled. We wanted to use a camera that had that fluidity, that could move between worlds.”
It does, and in “Bessie,” Rees has stepped out of the claustrophobia of Alike’s Brooklyn into “Pariah” and onto a much larger stage. If she can do this with one woman’s story, it’ll be thrilling to watch her take on a great migration.