Bessie (film)

Bessie
Promotional poster
GenreBiographical
Screenplay by
Story by
Directed byDee Rees
Starring
Theme music composerRachel Portman
Country of originUnited States
Production
Executive producers
ProducerRon Schmidt
CinematographyJeff Jur
EditorBrian A. Kates
Running time115 minutes
Production companiesHBO Films
Flavor Unit Entertainment
The Zanuck Company
Original release
NetworkHBO
Release
  • May 16, 2015 (2015-05-16)

Bessie is a 2015 HBO TV film about the American blues singer Bessie Smith, and focuses on her transformation as a struggling young singer into "The Empress of the Blues". The film is directed by Dee Rees, with a screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Queen Latifah stars as Smith, and supporting roles are played by Michael Kenneth Williams as Smith's first husband Jack Gee, and Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey. The film premiered on May 16, 2015. By the following year Bessie was the most watched HBO original film in the network's history. The film was well received critically and garnered four Primetime Emmy Awards, winning for Outstanding Television Movie.

Synopsis

Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is a young singer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her siblings are orphaned when their parents, William and Laura, die, leaving their oldest sister, Viola (Khandi Alexander), to raise them. Viola is abusive and vicious and Bessie's childhood is unhappy. She along with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) scrape by working for local vaudeville shows. Her stage ambitions are frustrated by producers unwilling to feature dark-skinned Black women in their shows. Bessie sneaks onto traveling performer Ma Rainey's (Mo'Nique) train compartment and asks to join her show. Ma Rainey takes Bessie under her wing and helps her develop her abilities until Bessie's popularity causes a schism between the two women. Bessie leaves with Clarence to start her own show.

In addition to her lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Bessie begins a tumultuous relationship with Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams), a security guard who later becomes her husband and manager. After a humiliating rejection from the newly formed Black Swan Records, Jack manages to get Bessie a record deal with Columbia Records. Immense success follows, though Bessie encounters difficulties, including a stabbing attack after a show in her hometown, racism from white guests during an affluent party, and an attack during her show by the Ku Klux Klan, whom she courageously chases off. Eventually, Bessie reconciles with Viola, and moves her and all of her siblings into a mansion to live with her. The move causes additional tension with Jack, and Bessie pushes him further by adopting a young boy, whom she names Jack Jr., as their son. Eventually, Lucille leaves Bessie to have her own life. Despite her own affair with bootlegger Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), Bessie is infuriated upon discovering that Jack is bankrolling his mistress, up and coming performer Gertrude Saunders. After a violent quarrel, Jack leaves her. Bessie spirals into depression and alcohol. Jack returns, kidnapping Jack Jr. with the assistance of Viola, and takes him to live with him, contending that Bessie is an unfit mother.

During the Great Depression, Bessie's fortune evaporates, forcing her and Clarence to move into a small apartment. Bessie reconciles with Ma Rainey and takes some time to recuperate from her personal losses. Eventually, she accepts Richard's love for her and the two begin a relationship. After hearing Lucille Bogan's licentious hit song "Til the Cows Come Home", Bessie performs once again and meets a young John Hammond in 1932 who wishes to produce her comeback tour. Bessie's comeback is a success and she later reflects on her life while discussing the future with Richard.

Cast

LGBTQ+ Representation

At the beginning of the film, Bessie and Ma Rainey wear suits – to pass as men – and attend an all-male poker game. They both play with their gender performance and sexuality in a time when anything outside of the heterosexual norm was deemed sinful.

Bessie’s sexuality is portrayed as fluid and undefined. Throughout the film, she engages in sexual relationships with men and women. She is never explicitly labeled as gay or bisexual, but it is clear that she does not adhere to heterosexual norms. This is revolutionary because it is rare to see non-normative sexuality unquestioned and somewhat accepted.

However, later in the film, Bessie and her husband, Jack Gee, both engage in sexual relationships with other people. However, Bessie’s husband only gets upset when Bessie is cheating with another man, Richard the bootlegger. He is well aware that Bessie has sexual relations with women but doesn’t view this as a legitimate threat to their relationship. One can assume this is due to his preconceived biases about queer relationships and their validity.

Production

A first draft screenplay was written by playwright Horton Foote at a time when Columbia Pictures was slated to produce the film, but the project died when the studio became involved in a financial irregularity that threatened its existence. Mr. Foote purchased his screenplay back from Columbia and acquired the film rights from biographer Chris Albertson.[citation needed] In the early 1990s, when the possibility of producers Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck taking over the project arose, Albertson suggested Queen Latifah for the lead, but the project lay dormant when financing could not be found. Upon Horton Foote's death in 2009, the script and film rights became the property of his daughter, actress Hallie Foote, who took it to the Zanucks and HBO. Thus, press releases claim that Bessie has been "22 years in the making." As part of the HBO deal, Queen Latifah is credited as one of the executive producers. The project was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia.

An early article announcing the HBO film indicated it would be based on Bessie, a 1972 biography by Chris Albertson, but a year later the book was not included in the film's credits or promotion, nor did the end result bear but a peripheral resemblance to Albertson's book. An HBO interview with director and screenwriter Dee Rees inquired which books were most influential to her research. Rees replied, "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis; Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South by Michelle Scott; and Jamaica Kincaid's book, Autobiography of My Mother, really informed me visually and thematically. "

Reception

The film received positive reviews from critics, with many critics praising the performances of Queen Latifah, Mo'Nique, and Michael K. Williams, while criticizing the use of the "Hollywood biopic" formula. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 91% based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Strong performances, led by Queen Latifah, overpower a middling script in the entertaining and informative Bessie." Metacritic gave the film a score of 75 out of 100 based on 20 critic reviews.

As of 2016, Bessie remained the most watched HBO original movie of all time with 1.34 million viewers and an 18–49 demo rating of 0.4.

Accolades

Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
2015
Critics' Choice Television Awards Best Movie Won
Best Actress in a Movie or Limited Series Queen Latifah Nominated
Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Limited Series Khandi Alexander Nominated
Mo'Nique Nominated
Online Film & Television Association Awards Best Motion Picture Won
Best Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Queen Latifah Nominated
Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Khandi Alexander Nominated
Mo'Nique Nominated
Best Direction of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Dee Rees Nominated
Best Writing of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois Nominated
Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Nominated
Best Cinematography in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Costume Design in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Editing in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Makeup/Hairstyling in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Music in a Non-Series Won
Best New Titles Sequence Nominated
Best Production Design in a Non-Series Won
Best Sound in a Non-Series Won
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Television Movie Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Queen Latifah,
Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone, Randi Michel, and
Ron Schmidt
Won
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie Queen Latifah Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie Michael Kenneth Williams Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie Mo'Nique Nominated
Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special Dee Rees Nominated
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and
Horton Foote
Nominated
Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or a Special Billy Hopkins and Jackie Burch Nominated
Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie Jeffrey Jur Won
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or a Movie Lawrence Davis, Monty Schuth, Iasia Merriweather,
and Victor Jones
Nominated
Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or a Movie (Non-Prosthetic) Debi Young, Mi Young, Ngozi Olandu,
Noel Hernandez, and Sian Richards
Nominated
Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) Rachel Portman Won
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or a Movie James Emswiller, Robert Fernandez, Damian Volpe,
Ed Cherney, and Evyen Klean
Won
Television Critics Association Awards Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Nominated
Women Film Critics Circle Awards Best Theatrically Unreleased Movie by or About Women Won
2016
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Miniseries or Motion Picture for Television Brian A. Kates Won
American Society of Cinematographers Awards Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Television Movie, Miniseries or Pilot Jeffrey Jur Nominated
Art Directors Guild Awards Excellence in Production Design Award – Television Movie or Mini-Series Clark Hunter, Drew Monahan, Carrie Gale, and
Traci Kirshbaum
Nominated
Black Reel Awards for Television Outstanding Television Movie or Limited Series Ron Schmidt Won
Outstanding Director, TV Movie or Limited Series Dee Rees Won
Outstanding Actress, TV Movie or Limited Series Queen Latifah Won
Outstanding Supporting Actor, TV Movie or Limited Series Charles S. Dutton Nominated
Michael Kenneth Williams Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress, TV Movie or Limited Series Mo'Nique Nominated
Outstanding Writing, TV Movie/Limited Series Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Dee Rees Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Miniseries Dee Rees Won
Georgia Film Critics Association Awards Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois Nominated
GLAAD Media Awards Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television Queen Latifah Nominated
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing – Long Form Dialogue and ADR in Television Damian Volpe, Tony Martinez, Brian Bowles, and
Mary Ellen Porto
Won
Best Sound Editing - Long Form Sound Effects and Foley in Television Damian Volpe, Kris Fenske, Bill Sweeney,
Heather Gross, Dave Paterson, and Jay Peck
Nominated
Guild of Music Supervisors Awards Best Music Supervision – Television Limited Series or Movie Evyen Klean and Jennifer Reeve Won
Best Song/Recording Created for Television "Long Old Road"
Written by Bessie Smith;
Performed by Queen Latifah;
Music Supervisors: Evyen Klean and Jennifer Reeve
Nominated
Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Best Period and/or Character Hair Styling –
Television Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Lawrence Davis and Monty Schuth Nominated
Best Period and/or Character Makeup –
Television Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Debi Young, Sian Richards, and Mi Young Nominated
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special Michael Kenneth Williams Nominated
Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special Queen Latifah Won
Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture (Television) Dee Rees Won
Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture (Television) Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois Nominated
Satellite Awards Best Motion Picture Made for Television Nominated
Best Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television Queen Latifah Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Michael Kenneth Williams Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Mo'Nique Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Queen Latifah Won

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