Oscar Ignores Bessie Smith’s Story Too

DATELINE: Movies about People

With the Oscars embroiled in charges of racial bias, HBO continues to produce interesting and diverse films that are ineligible for the Academy Award. One of this year’s best movies is relegated to a second tier and second class status.

Talk about injustice.

This year’s Bessie is a classic example. Before Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters, there was Bessie Smith. She just didn’t sing the blues. She lived the blues.

Queen Latifah never fails to surprise. And, with this film, she plays the great blues singer of the 1920s, Bessie Smith, with an elan seldom seen in performances. She clearly identifies with the benighted black singer who rose from obscurity, fell back, and rose again to a comeback with the likes of Benny Goodman.

As producer and star, Queen Latifah is the real story. Her talents range from comedy to tragedy—and she can sing too.

As Bessie, Latifah has met a subject she can sink her teeth into. And the film depicts the black audiences of segregated days with their own star system. Mo’Nique matches Queen scene for scene as her mentor and friend Ma Rainey.

Like Latifah, Bessie Smith was tough and brash. She had to be to succeed in the barnstorming days of musical acts from the American South that played to the affluent black audiences of its day.

Once again, the surprise may be how much American culture is derived from these entertainment pioneers in music. The black culture seems cutting edge, precursors to the attitudes and style to develop in white America decades later.

Audiences that miss Latifah’s Bessie may also miss a chance to learn what great talent truly is.