Screen Gems

Queen Latifah wants you to meet a queer legend. We say just go with it.

Bessie

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.

The Embodied: Bessie

Here at Queerty, we’re still reeling from the badassness of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and eagerly looking forward to another Oscar contender about a queer blues legend, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Both movies remind us of another biopic about a gay blues legend: Bessie.

Lesbian director Dee Rees (Mudbound) directed this HBO film from a story by legendary playwright Horton Foote. Bessie chronicles the life of blues belter Bessie Smith, a woman whose abusive, orphaned upbringing would fuel her passionate vocals. As a young woman, Smith falls into the watchful protection of Ma Rainey (yes, the same Ma Rainey, played here by Oscar-winner Mo’Nique), who coaches her into a successful singing career. Smith goes on to become one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, before personal woes and the Great Depression bring her fortune and career crashing down.

Bessie benefits from the assertive direction of Rees, and from a career-best performance by Queen Latifah. She’s the kind of actor that has a very natural charisma and likability in all her work; here, she has a downright luminous presence, channeling all of Smith’s passion and sorrow. It’s a shame Latifah isn’t offered more roles like this one. She’s truly a wonderful actress. Despite the film’s formula script, she brings Bessie to life. We recommend giving the film a watch this weekend as a part of an extended marathon shared with Ma Rainey’s and Billie Holiday. These queer women changed the face of music. Not only do they deserve lionization for their pushback against homophobia and racism, but they’re also damn fine musicians.

Streams on HBO Max, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes & YouTube.