Writing for The Root, the Burton Wire‘s founder & editor-in-chief reviews HBO‘s Bessie, starring Dana ‘Queen Latifah’ Owens, Mo’Nique, Mike Epps, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Torry Kittles and Tikka Sumpter. Read an excerpt of the review below:
HBO’s Bessie is a gem. In a film that was 22 years in the making, Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens delivers a powerhouse performance as Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues (1894-1937). Writer-director Dee Rees (Pariah) continues her game-changing trajectory of making films that are beautifully human and complicated—films that tell stories about the complexity of love and the human spirit. In an industry where biopics—especially TV biopics—rarely do their subjects justice, Rees’ Bessie (which debuts May 16 on the cable network) does an excellent job of placing Smith and her legacy of music, sexual freedom and bravery in a historical and cultural context.
Owens conveys Smith’s talent, strength and vulnerability in a tour de force performance that solidifies her place among the industry’s best actresses. Owens’ depth as an actress is on full display as she moves thoughtfully and intentionally through the story of Smith’s turbulent life, which was marked by scandal, despair, triumph and courage. Smith was publicly bisexual at a time when women and men were tortured and jailed for engaging in same-sex relationships. Her unconventional approach to blues singing was reflected in her unconventional relationships with men and women who were intoxicated by her self-determination, yet threatened by her indomitable spirit.
Smith studied under the tutelage of Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett (played by Mo’Nique), the Mother of the Blues, who was just as fearless, feisty and free as Smith. Rainey’s territorial nature ruptured their friendship. The relationship would eventually be repaired, but only after much turmoil and disappointment.
Mo’Nique’s bold depiction of the blues legend is mesmerizing. The proverbial baton that was passed from Rainey to Smith is reflected in the passing of the baton from an Oscar-winning actress (Mo’Nique) to Owens, who already has an Academy Award nomination under her belt—for 2002’s Chicago—and who certainly has an Oscar win in her future.
The chemistry between Mo’Nique and Owens is unparalleled on-screen, as is the story of a self-possessed woman who risked fame and fortune to live the life that she wanted despite the odds against her…
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Bessie premieres on HBO, Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m.
Read the review in its entirety at The Root.