Bessie and the Musical Legacy of Black Feminism

4e06e26140695e1f91df510cd7099598e9f35f22From the written page to the streets, and even to cable TV, Black feminism is hitting its stride.

Not only is a Black feminist theorist like Kimberlé Crenshaw changing the political landscape—first with her policy brief, “Black Girls Matter,” and her article of the same name in Ms.‘ current issue, and later with her co-authored brief, “#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” which set off a series of nation-wide protests on May 21—but so too is the work of Angela Y. Davis shifting our cultural scene, most notably her seminal study on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which filmmaker Dee Rees used as “her bible” in the making of HBO’s original movie Bessie that premiered on May 16.

Such influences led to two remarkable moments in which Black women’s bodies were laid bare for the public, a nudity mobilized for resistance and truth-telling instead of the usual objectification. We witnessed Black women of the BlackOut Collective boldly engage in a #SayHerName naked protest against police brutality in the financial district of San Francisco. But just days before this collective action, Queen Latifah, in her starring role as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, appeared nude for the first time in a stark and unflinching scene, in which she gazes back at her mirror image undressing, removing the facade, and confronting her true self: full-bodied, imperfect and real. When have we ever confronted the Black female body in such honest and soul-baring ways, whether on the streets or in film?

I offer this preamble because the context in which Bessie debuted for cable television matters greatly. Against the heated social climate of protesters proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter, our media is finally recognizing that our stories matter too. And director Dee Rees, who was first recognized for her critically acclaimed coming-of-age Black lesbian film Pariah, revels in a fully realized Black feminist film that captures the dynamic, sexually fluid and audacious life of a blues singer who resisted the various systems that tried to box her in: from physically abusive partners to the racism prevalent during Jim Crow to insidious “brown paper bag tests” that render her dark skin not good enough to heteronormative conventions that could not contain her bisexuality. There is also an intriguing scene where Bessie Smith wrests control of her performance at a soiree hosted by Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten, who presents her as an exotic “primitive” performer of “dusky pathos.” Negotiating such acts of “Northern” racism, as well as “Southern” racism, where the Ku Klux Klan tries to destroy her big tent show in North Carolina or shoot at her passing train in Mississippi, Bessie maintains an indomitable agency throughout.

Queen Latifah shines in this role and brings her radiant star power to the story. Her own vocal performances showcase the same bravado and risque ebullience as the blues legend she portrays. Throughout her scenes, it is easy to see the appeal and her gregarious love for the crowd. Equally matching her is Mo’Nique in her standout role as “Mother of the Blues” legend Ma Rainey, serving as her guide, mentor and “big sister.” There is a subversive rendering of the queer cross-dressing performance of “Prove It on Me Blues,” in which Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith live out these bawdy lyrics. Despite conflicts and rivalry, their relationship is ultimately healed through the power of sisterhood, a bond the film suggests outlasts any other relationship, such as marriage or motherhood.

The overall cast—including Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s bitter older sister Viola, Michael K. Williams as her volatile husband and manager Jack Gee, Tika Sumpter as her long-suffering lover Lucille, Mike Epps as her beloved boyfriend Richard and Tory Kittles as her devoted brother Clarence—round out impressive performances. If only the editing and storytelling were as strong. Using quick flashbacks and dream-like sequences to provide background on Bessie’s early life, this technique sometimes created more confusion than clarity. And while I understand the need for a more hopeful ending, the story shortchanges viewers who may not have known that Bessie Smith died tragically at age 43 after a car crash (it is widely believed—though disputed—that she passed after being refused treatment at a segregated hospital in Mississippi after the crash). While I appreciate Dee Rees wanting to avoid such cliches as a postscript in the end credits, there is something profoundly missing when we’re not shown her tragic end. I love a good ending—with Bessie and her devoted lover Richard driving on that “long, long road”—but for those of us with historical knowledge of the impending death ahead, the story feels incomplete. Perhaps the tragedy should have come at the beginning of the movie, with a backward telling of her life story leading to that hopeful journey at the end.

Despite these flaws, Bessie more than makes up for them with powerful performances and a Black feminist sensibility that shows a woman, time and again, forging her own path, determined to make her own choices—both personally and professionally—and perpetually staying on the move, always in search of something better: whether it’s a new home, a new city, or a new way to express her art. From Ma Rainey’s “suitcase” on the stage to their private luxury trains, these blues women have illuminated for us different ways of moving in and inhabiting a world that tried in so many ways to restrict their movements as Black women. Their resistance to such confinements is an invaluable lesson in Black feminism, which has a long history and musical legacy.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.