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HBO's 'Bessie' is about a lot more than the blues

The night before Bessie aired on HBO, I dreamed I was in the crowd at one of her performances. I woke up from my dream excited and completely moved. I just can’t help myself.

Maybe it was just anticipation of a movie I knew I would like, but it was probably enthusiasm for a film that hits me in my sweet spot, at the intersection of pop culture, Southern culture, and American identity. Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as blues legend Bessie Smith, is as much about my precious South, the American popular culture, and the effect of these things on our shared identities, as it is about a beautiful woman singing sad songs.

Both the movie and the woman are incredibly important to our current conceptions of popular culture, Southern identity, and feminism, specifically black feminism. Because, as Angela Davis says in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “Their performances infused feminism into the unsuspecting consciousness.” Which is just a fancy way of saying “the popular culture noticed.”

Ms. Davis is referring to Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who is played beautifully by Mo’nique—I am hypnotized every time she is on screen. I have a little bit of author bias, especially for the Ma Rainey character, just so you know. The real Ma Rainey is from my hometown and pretty much invented the blues. She might just be the single most important influencer in contemporary music, but like I said… author bias.

Ma Rainey owns the stage in HBO

Bessie has the confidence, throughout the first half of the film, to take a stand independent of the social constructs concerning race, patriarchy and sexuality. She works to assert complete control over everything. She might be labeled today as a bisexual, but Bessie just loved whomever she pleased, and she and Ma Rainey famously dared anybody with a problem with that to “Prove It On Me.

In terms of race, she was adamant about honoring her blackness, refusing to hire anyone who passed the “paper bag test.” The film depicts Bessie being rejected by the black-owned and operated Black Swan records for ostensibly being too “down home,” which translates into “too black,” but Bessie never tamps down her identity or works to smooth the rough, Southern edges.

Bessie’s real career coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, and there is scene in the film in which Bessie takes her entourage, including her longtime lover Lucille (played by the gorgeous Tika Sumpter), to a bougie party in New York City. The party is filled with stuffy white folks, and her sheer presence is filling the entire place, pale-ing everyone else. Langston Hughes is in attendance, as well as Carl Van Vechten, controversial author of N**ger Heaven.

Lucille waits for Bessie in HBO

Oliver Platt plays Van Vechten with his usual light-hearted, white-guy condescension, calling Bessie, “a treasure,” and “soulful” after she gives a beautiful performance to an anemic crowd. He might as well pat her on the head and tell her, “good girl,” but Bessie won’t be diminished.

She throws her drink in his face when he tells her what a good addition she will make to his book and blows up the party as she loudly and drunkenly exits. Davis suggests that Bessie and her contemporaries’ performances allowed the American culture to examine a black feminist history that reflects the black working class. As evidenced in this scene at the bougie party, Bessie refused to be anybody’s exhibit, whether it was her race, her gender, or her class that was on display.

The blues are an expression of life and circumstances for many black audiences, but were considered “low culture” by many, including Langston Hughes, who tried to warn Bessie to tone it down for the white crowd at the party. Bessie doesn’t tone it down, ever, and the film depicts her as an unstoppable force that always needs more and more to continue to move forward.

She and her husband, JG, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, were in a constant power struggle throughout the entire film. Neither would relinquish any control and his proposal included him swearing he won’t be “no hen pecked man” and her acceptance requires that he “won’t put me on no shelf.”

Queen Latifah plays Bessie

Bessie, both in real life and in the film’s depiction, completely rejected the normal ideas of gender roles and domestic relationships. She maintained her relationship with Lucille throughout most of the movie, and she fell in love with bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps) and carried on an affair with him for years while married to JG.

Impulsive and passionate, Bessie creates what Davis calls a “caricature of gender roles,” forcing JG to accept her extreme dominance and control. After forgiving her abusive and sadistic older sister who cared for her after her mother died, she gathers everyone around the table for Thanksgiving and inexplicably shows up with a seven year old, declaring him their new son, named Jack Jr.

The last third of the movie depicts Bessie’s descent into addiction and vice after JG leaves her and takes their son. Of course, she finds redemption through a comeback with the help of her brother and her friend Ma Rainey, but this is the least compelling moment of the movie.

Queen Latifah plays Bessie on HBO

While the movie is a beautiful tribute to one of the most influential women in American popular culture, it just wasn’t enough. I want more. I want to know more about how she felt; about how she fought her circumstances; how she knew enough to be a radical in a time when women were counted as props and black people were expendable commodities.

Queen Latifah does an incredible job of embodying Bessie’s charisma, and Mo’nique is about as Ma Rainey as you can get, but you should really honor these women by listening to their blues in their own voices.  Here’s Bessie’s Bessie Smith Sings More Blues and Ma Rainey sings here.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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