Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Directed by Dee Rees and screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois from a story by Rees and Horton Foote, Bessie is the story of the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith and the journey she would take to be one of the pioneers in blues. The film is an exploration of a woman in her rise to become the great singer as well as struggle with success and identity as she is played by Queen Latifah. Also starring Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Bryan Greenberg, and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. Bessie is a rapturous and intoxicating film from Dee Rees.
The film follows the life and career of Bessie Smith who was considered an influential figure in the world of blues music from her period of success during the 1920s to the late 1930s before her death in 1937 at the age of 43. The film focuses on Smith’s life from her early period as a struggling singer in 1912 where she meets the famed blues singer Ma Rainey who would become her mentor to the mid-1930s just a few years before her death. The film’s screenplay by Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois is straightforward with a few flashbacks as it relates to Smith’s troubled childhood though the film opens with Smith singing at a club when she was at her peak and then returning home as it would become a reflective story of sorts. Notably as Smith thinks about wanting to succeed and give people in her family as well as those close to enjoy her success. Learning from Ma Rainey in how to perform, engage the audience, and deal with the business side of things, Smith and her brother Clarence (Troy Kittles) would form their own show as they would get help from Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams) who would become Smith’s first husband.
Gee would also handle some of Smith’s businesses much to her brother’s dismay where things would go well but Smith has her own interests towards both men and women as well as a love of alcohol. Smith’s affairs with both sexes would cause trouble in her marriage to Gee who would take on other interests with her money as it would create a lot of discord. Even as Smith’s estranged older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) whom she had reconciled with would take charge of Smith’s own personal life. Yet, it would also play into Smith’s fall when the Great Depression occur forcing her and Clarence to deal with their dwindling fortune but also the realization that there’s people who still listen to her music and needed her.
Rees’ direction is definitely mesmerizing for the way it captures early 20th Century life at a time when African-Americans are excluded from certain parts of the country. Shot largely in areas around Atlanta and other parts of the American South, the film has Rees use the rural locations to play into the American South where it was segregated but also lively as African-Americans had their own community and culture to live on. Rees would use wide shots of the locations as well as scenes in theaters to play into scope of the world that Smith is as well as the number of people who come to see her including a shot in the cotton fields as she watch them wave to her on her train. Yet, much of Rees’ direction emphasizes on close-ups and medium shots as it play into Smith’s interaction with other people in her life as well as the key moments that would shape her such as a stabbing she would receive from a man she earlier insulted for being rude to her. Rees’ close-ups would also play into the stage as well as the attention to detail of what Smith had to do to engage the audience in her performance as it would be her gift but also cause problems with Ma Rainey who realizes that Smith is a better singer.
Rees would also create some dream-like elements to play into Smith’s life at home as well as display something that is extravagant into the stage show such as the opening shot of her under a blue limelight. It would be seen again to set up the third act as it relates to the toll success would have on Smith. Even as she is aware that not everyone including upper-class white society will accept her as she also doesn’t give a fuck if they accept her or not. The third act does play into her descent where Rees reveals not just the pain of her childhood but also her own flaws where she would drive those who cared about her away. Still, there are those who were willing to stick by her as Rees would show what those outside of her circle were willing to do such as the character of John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg) in bringing her music to the masses. Overall, Rees creates a compelling and lively film about the life of one of the pioneers of blues music.
Cinematographer Jeff Jur does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography as it play into some of the film’s natural lighting for some of the daytime exterior scenes as well as some unique lighting for some of the interiors and scenes at night. Editor Brian A. Kates does excellent work with the editing as it play into the performances of the music as well as some of the drama that occur in the film. Production designer Clark Hunter, with set decorator Traci Kirshbaum and art director Drew Monahan, does amazing work with the look of the theaters, trains, cars, and other places to play into the look of the times. Costume designer Michael T. Boyd does fantastic work with the costumes from the look of the dresses and hats that the women wore in those times as well as the suits and other stylish clothing that play into the period of the 1920s to the ragged look of the Great Depression.
Visual effects supervisors Paul Graff, Gong Myung Lee, and Eric J. Robertson do nice work with the visual effects as it is mainly set dressing for some of the exteriors including scenes outside of the train. Sound designer Kris Fenske and sound editor Damian Volpe do superb work with the sound in the way the crowd reacts to the music as well as some of the things happening on location. The film’s music by Rachel Portman is wonderful for its low-key orchestral score in some of the childhood flashbacks and intensely-dramatic moments while the rest of the soundtrack feature a lot of blues music from the real artists that are actually sung by the actors who play them including bits of jazz in the mix including the early dirty blues music of Lucille Bogan.
The casting by Billy Hopkins is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Joe Knezevich as the talent agent Frank Walker who would get Smith to sign with Columbia Records, Bryan Greenberg as the famed record producer John Hammond who would record Smith’s music late in her career, Oliver Platt as the controversial writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten who is fascinated by Smith until he told her the title of his controversial novel that pisses off Smith, Kamryn Johnson as the young Smith, Chantelle Rose Mussenden as the wannabe blues singer Gertrude Saunders that Jack wants to promote and develop, and Charles S. Dutton as Ma Rainey’s manager Pa Rainey who handles her business as well as help Smith in how to handle business. Tika Sumpter is wonderful as Smith’s lesbian lover Lucille whom she sleeps with as well as have her around for companionship while Mike Epps is superb as Richard as a bootlegger of alcohol who would become another of Smith’s lovers but also someone who really cares about her. Tory Kittles is fantastic as Smith’s brother Clarence who often accompanies her and makes sure things go well while being part of a power struggle over control of her career with McGee.
Khandi Alexander is excellent as Smith’s estranged older sister Viola who had never been fully supportive until she sees how successful Smith has become where she would reconcile with her but would also see her sister’s downfall very closely. Michael K. Williams is brilliant as Jack McGee as a man who falls for Smith and helps manages her career where he would do everything to make sure things go well but would also become frustrated by her other ventures leading to him doing things on his own. Mo’Nique is incredible as Ma Rainey as the blues pioneer who would be Smith’s mentor as a woman that knows how to engage the audience and deal with business as well as know where not to go as it’s a commanding and charismatic performance. Finally, there’s Queen Latifah in a phenomenal performance as Bessie Smith as a woman wanting to make it as a singer but also has a huge lust for life and everything else yet is haunted by her childhood and insecurities about herself as it’s a career-defining performance for Latifah.
Bessie is a spectacular film from Dee Rees that features a sensational performance from Queen Latifah in the titular role. Along with its great supporting cast, amazing music, and gorgeous visuals, it’s a film that doesn’t play into the conventions of a bio-pic while allowing audiences who aren’t familiar with the blues hear its importance to the world of music. Even as it gives light to some of its pioneers who would make that music important. In the end, Bessie is a tremendous film from Dee Rees.
Dee Rees Films: (Eventual Salvation) – Pariah - (Mudbound)
© thevoid99 2018