HBO’s “Bessie” is The Bisexual Badass Biopic Of Our Dreams

This review contains mild spoilers for HBO’s Bessie, which airs tonight at 8:00 p.m.

Queen Latifah was born to play Bessie Smith.

I’ve grown up with Queen Latifah in my pop culture world. First, she was my favorite rapper because she dared to ask men “Who you calling a bitch??” on the rap anthem/classic U.N.I.T.Y. Then Queen La blew up the television sitcom world with Living Single, a show about a group of young Black professionals having fun and working their way up in the world, and I loved every minute of it. Shit, truth be told, Living Single’s whole look got snatched by white media to make Friends, amiright?

Anyway, all this to say, I’ve watched the Queen make so many different moves and artistic choices, and it’s here, in Bessie, that she radiates. Bessie is the role of a lifetime for Queen Latifah. She’s never been more poised, emotionally raw and free in her skin in any other role. Not in Chicago, not even on her own talk show, The Queen Latifah Show.

All hail the return and the continued Black Reign of Queen Latifah.

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All photos courtesy of HBO.

Directed by Dee Rees, Bessie is the biopic of the most popular female blues singer of pre-Great Depression America. And honestly, before watching this movie, I didn’t know too much about Bessie Smith at all. Damn, y’all, we’ve been missing out on a legend.

Bessie Smith belongs up there at the top of our bisexual role models list: above Evan Rachel Wood Bisexual and past Callie La Mega Badass Bisexual Babe. Bessie’s romantic entanglements move the narrative – as is the case in most films about women – but this focus feels more authentic. Bessie doesn’t rely on any of her lovers to fuel her ambition or push her career forward. The momentum is all hers. And damn, it looks good to see Queen La as Bessie cuddled up with the beautiful Lucy, played by Tika Sumpter, exchanging sweet words while wearing silk pajamas. It’s equally as thrilling to watch Jack Gee, played by the ever enigmatic Michael Kenneth Williams, willfully audition to be Bessie’s main man. As for Bessie, she snaps them both up and let’s them know she doesn’t belong to anyone but herself.

Now, some of the romantic twists are a bit confusing. If you’re hoping there’s gonna be a moment where everyone sits down and discusses the parameters of their polyamory, you’re gonna be waiting a while. Order some delivery. Keep waiting, cuz it ain’t happening. I wanted a little more explanation: like how did Lucy feel when Bessie started up with Jack? How did Jack feel when Bessie started banging new dude and Lucy and whoever? Was this just how things went back in the day? All show and we just don’t talk about it? The one constant is that Bessie’s in charge.

Bessie is bomb, y’all. Super bomb. She stands up for herself and her people even in the face of the damn Klan. The Klan and the moments with rich white people are fucking terrifying. Like hold-my-breath, oh-my-god is Bessie going to die right now, terrifying. There are no white saviors in this film, thank the universe. Bessie Smith doesn’t cater to white people or men and as brave as her fight is, it’s equally gut-wrenching; at any moment, the world she fights for could have swallowed her whole and left her to rot. Queen Latifah ever so capably maneuvers Bessie from any sort of static strong-Black-woman archetype and weaves a palpable vulnerability, an ache for love, into her portrayal and it’s glorious.

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But let’s backtrack a second, because maybe you’re not with me right now, maybe you’re too busy scrolling through Tumblr for pics of KStew and new boo and that’s okay. Lemme pull y’all on back to this movie, right here. ‘Cuz Mo’Nique literally almost stole Queen La’s whole damn show and that woulda been some shit. Instead of stealing the thunder, Mo’Nique’s portrayal of Ma Rainey, the world’s most famous old school butch switch daddy, flows effortlessly alongside Bessie. Mo’Nique is a powerhouse, a sexy badass and if you didn’t f*ck with Mo’Nique before, ya better start now or you’re gonna miss your life.

Mo’Nique’s Ma Rainey wears a 3-piece suit one night and sings a song about not needing a johnson to please the ladies. I started screaming and fanning myself on my couch. The next night, she’s on stage in a beautiful glittering gown, complete with a white feather in her hair, crooning to a sold-out crowd panting to hear her moan the blues. I kinda loved their non-static presentations. Sometimes I feel like our community is missing out on that type of fluidity. Ma Rainey slayed in her suit and her dress and could give one damn if you cared. She got the ladies, the cash and the fame no matter what.

Here’s an excerpt from my notes while watching:

MONIQUE AS MA RAINEY OHMAGAD MA RAINEY WAS GAY-ISH TOO

I’m literally blushing right now. Ma Rainey has all the fine girls sitting on her lap, not even twenty minutes in and we get Mo’Nique in a full tux singing a swag ass song about being butch and not needing a johnson to satisfy all the ladies omg omg i am hyperventilating. AYYYYY.

I think that kinda sums her all up? Yes?

Ma Rainey takes Bessie under her wing and teaches her how to be a traveling performer. A kinship blossoms between them; they both love women, sing the blues, and have to deal with white people trying to steal their profits and men who want to control them. It’s a shame that their relationship turns sour, but it’s that break that pushes Bessie out into the world. It’s then that she claims her identity as an artist and becomes a star.

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This movie is well-done, like so well-done. The vaudeville stage moments and all of the singing in clubs and giant tent revivals are lively and beautiful. The black excellence in this film is something to behold and revel in. Everyone is gorgeous. The costumes, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing: all of it is authentic and just so much damn fun to watch. There aren’t enough period dramas with Black people and people of color at the forefront, and not enslaved or at the mercy of white people. Bessie transcends all of that. Bessie is alive and vibrant.

And best of all, at least for me, the healing that Bessie needs to pull her life together is found in her friendship with Ma Rainey. Like: be still my damn heart. Do you know how beautiful and profound it is to witness two Black women heal each other? The final moments between Ma and Bessie got me weepy eyed. And I’m hoping you’ll feel it too.

Watch Bessie. Do it for the moments of bisexual badassery. Do it for the love of the blues. But goddammit, watch Bessie so that HBO knows this is the type of content we need and want and so that more Black women and women of color get the roles they need as actors and directors in an industry so polluted by rwm: rich white men.

Watch Bessie because her legacy is an important part of our history as queers in this world.

So go, watch, and then come back here and tell us all your feelings.

Bessie premieres tonight on HBO at 8pm EST.

Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabby has written 102 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. I know HBO, the producers, the director, etc. wanted to celebrate Bessie’s life, but the controversy and racism around her death needed to be reflected.

    Morbid detail, in 1970, Janis Joplin, a few months before her own death, and Juanita Green, paid for a tombstone to be erected in Bessie’s grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

  2. I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it.

    I don’t have HBO, but I don’t need it to feel the joy of history, queer history, queer black history being proliferated at the scale of an HBO production!
    Nerding out and fanpersoning at same time.

  3. I haven’t seen this yet, but I had to come in and say when I first say U.N.I.T.Y. on MTV I just loved it. It was one of those songs I wanted them to play frequently. Same with Living Single, that show is still the best and watch it on reruns on that one network that’s only on extended cable package. Thank you for this review.

    • the whole black reign album was legit. it gets overshadowed by the miseducation of lauryn hill, which of course was pure brilliance but black reign was tight as hell.

      and living single still cracks me up. Sincloverton & Overclaire for the win.

      • I still have two copies of that CD, because each skips (on different songs, though, hence the need to keep them both). It’s damn good.

        And I had a hard crush on Max from Living Single. And she’s still glorious in syndication.

        Bessie was great. I don’t enjoy period dramas as a general rule, but this brought something really new to the table. Even better than expected!

  4. As a major blues-lover and fan of period films, I just CANNOT wait. No HBO outside the US, so I’ll have to find another solution, but this just seems so, so great. The casting is perfect. Has anybody had the chance to see it yet? Did it live up to your expectations?

  5. I’m glad this biopic seems to at least tell the whole truth about who Bessie Smith was. Especially in regards to her bisexuality since Hollywood and the media love to either cover up or dismiss the non-heterosexuality of historical figures with a “Well, we don’t know for sure” excuse.

    • word. that’s what pulled me in like from the first ten minutes we see who and how she loves and there’s no flinching or sneaking around like in other films like fried green tomatoes etc.

  6. I hope this will be available all all regions of Netflix. I had assumed anything made by them would be available from anywhere, but apparently thats not always the case T.T

  7. Bessie Smith was not only a queer lady, she was a GREAT singer and musician ! Watch Bessie for the music ! (and the bisexual part. But don’t reduce her to that.)
    I can’t wait to see that *-* My favorite music, one of my favorite woman, and HBO ? I want it !!

  8. So, HBO, can we start like a series going with Bessie? Maybe a “Ma” Rayney movie, a little Lucille Bogan, some Alberta Hunter, of course we need Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters and you can squeeze Big Mama Thornton too.

    So, probably everybody has watched this, I had a shorter version, but it is amazing to see Bessie Smith performing.

  9. Ah! I saw this and it was amazing^_^ I have loved Queen Latifah and have just discovered her old school music UNITY and Ladies First, and just another day & between that and loving many of her films and her independence and self respect she has, she is definitely one of my female heroes out there! The film was really cool to see how a bisexual was in the 20s/30s type of time period that it look place in .. soo good- <3 Major inspiration

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