I leave it to others to determine whether HBO's Bessie got the history right. Slate's Laura Bradley thinks the film did pretty well in that department. Film is art, after all, and in this case art about the great blues singer Bessie Smith.
Dee Rees, originally of Nashville and known for her pathbreaking film Pariah, does an incredible job evoking Chattanooga's Bessie Smith in a compressed two hours. We see the haunting struggles and the moments of triumph, big and small, that help us think about possibilities for Black LGBT life in the early 20th-century South.
Let's stop and consider that for a moment. How often do we get to see a film by an African-American lesbian from Tennessee about a bisexual African-American woman from Tennessee presented by one of the leading cable channels? Not often enough. So the film's debut is an extremely important moment.
As well as presenting the life, loves, and career of Bessie Smith, the film manages to give us many of the complexities of racism that continue to plague us today. The paper bag test for skin color comes up a couple of times. We witness a Klan attack in the South and condescension in the North. One of Bessie's best lines occurs at a New York party when she says, and I'm paraphrasing: "In the South, they don't mind how close you get as long as you don't get too big. In the North, they don't mind how big you get as long as you don't get too close."
Again, it's just remarkable the ways in which Dee Rees packs all these elements effortlessly into two hours. Of course, I couldn't fail to mention the outstanding performances by Queen Latifah and Michael Kenneth Williams.
I hope everyone gets to see Bessie!