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HBO Films: BESSIE Review

By Jef Dinsmore on May 19, 2015 to HBO Films

HBOFilms_logoThis post is not going to offer a scene by scene recap of the HBO Films presentation that debuted on SATURDAY, MAY 16th, but it is going to offer up a look into the style and tone of the film in hopes that fans of HBO will take in the two hour experience for themselves. It is a movie not to be missed.

BESSIE_06Queen Latifah bares it all literally and figuratively in BESSIE a vanity project for her that is a solid portrayal of songstress Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues. HBO Films has once again offered up a richly produced and designed TV-movie that at times beautifully depicts the wardrobes, music and sights of the day. At other times it shows us the raw truths of society, show business and the lives from the era and blacks, especially and most effectively, black women of the day.

It is through flashback that we see the childhood years of Bessie Smith. One mind-searing moment from her youth haunted her as an adult and plays out more than once in the film. Yes, the movie does illustrate the far too common scene of a entertainer who struggled through crisis in life only to rise to great things in later years. And yes, it almost seems like a cliché to say this story deals with the issues of abandonment, and a lack of love and worth and the continued search in life to find those lost values. But in a well done movie like BESSIE you don’t mind it at all. It is that well written and played out.

Tory Kittles and Tika Sumpter as Clarence and Lucille

Tory Kittles and Tika Sumpter as Clarence and Lucille

The cast from top to bottom also maintained the high quality production value throughout. For the men I have to single out Tory Kittles (Papania from TRUE DETECTIVE Season One) as a standout. Even though his role as Clarence was not a brash or loud man or disrespectful of women, he stood out as a strong character. He was as strong as his character’s support of Bessie was. But, it was the female roles, even some with shorter screen time, that stay with you. Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey, Tika Sumpter as Lucille and Khandi Alexander as Viola add such style. But, of course, it is Queen Latifah that gives the performance of a lifetime. Every aspect of Bessie Smith’s life is played out by her. The rough times with men, the good times at posh clubs, the bisexuality, the boozing (you know those  Prohibition years drove anyone to drink), the love of the extended family, the hate for the hustlers, dealing with record producers and the Depression and being in front of adoring fans, and all alone facing the mirror. All commanded by a performance that will come around again at awards time. Her strength as a performer and actress made for one solid character. But, she admitted to a bit of help as Latifah admitted to “talking with” Bessie Smith herself to help motivate her along the way.

Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey

Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey

A review cannot be right until you mention the music. Blues, in all its variations, is not for everyone. In fact, I could see where someone could find fault with this movie for using too much music in it. From beginning to the final credits, where we hear the real Bessie Smith, the music is there every few minutes. There are great moments in those staged numbers, which were not lip synced by the way. They are there to help the story along. If you really listen to the lyrics they accentuate the action of the films as well as offer up a unique American-bred sound. If you are interested in the soundtrack you can buy it here.

As HBO Films go BESSIE is one of its strongest. It holds up there as high quality entertainment equal to your precious GAME OF THRONES. You can still find it on HBOGo/HBONow and airing on HBO on 05.20 at 10:30am & 8:00pm; 05.24 at 1:30pm; 05.25 at 4:00am; 05.26 at 3:00pm & 11:45pm; 05.30 at 9:45am & 4:00pm and into June.

People_QueenLatifahHere are excerpts from an Associated Press interview with Queen Latifah.   

“I felt like it was the role of a lifetime. There was no Google when this movie came to me. It wasn’t like I could just pull it up on a computer and find out about her. So I bought the box set and started listening to her music. And initially I was terrified, because this music is so different; her voice is so different, from mine. I was able to figure out the parts that we could connect on, the parts of her way of singing that I could emulate in my way to show her style without being intimidated by the fact that I don’t have that voice — she’s a powerhouse!



The music really helped me get closer to her, quicker, to really connect with her. She wrote all those songs: By learning them, I was able to feel her more. But who am I to not play her to the bone! Talk about ‘The show must go on’! This woman literally got stabbed, left the hospital, and went out and performed. I need to feel the wind in my face. I need to feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s how I feel about characters that require that type of dedication. I can’t worry about Queen Latifah — who I am has to go out the window when you’re playing this character. ‘Let’s drive! Let’s take the seatbelt off and do a hundred! Let’s go!’ That what it requires!”

And she delivers. 



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