While the world rightfully celebrates Ava DuVernay’s skills with Selma, we might want to stay tuned to director Dee Rees too. The creative force behind HBO’s Bessie, Rees cut her teeth on the heart-wrenching independent film Pariah that left me in a puddle of tears by the credits and she brought the same raw, subtle emotion to the bawdy Blues singer’s biopic.
In Pariah, Rees illustrates the story of Alike, a Brooklyn teenager struggling to express her sexuality in a house with a father, played by Charles Parnell, who’d rather look the other way and a homophobic mother, played by Kim Wayans, who’s trying to pray her child’s gay away. As she fumbles along her awkward trail toward self-awareness, butching up when out with lesbians friends but shedding all of her accoutrements on the bus ride home, she becomes the flashpoint for her parents strained relationship. As a daddy’s girl, her father knows that she’s gay but refuses to acknowledge it, but her mother is cruel. In the break room at her mother’s job, Alike comes to ask her mom for acceptance. Mom doesn’t oblige, says she has to go back to work and summarily turns her back on her firstborn because she believes her sexuality is a sin as tears quietly stream down Alike’s face. The final heart-breaking scene is a great example of Rees strength as a writer and director: she’s not about bells and whistles. Rees focuses on her characters’ humanity.
Rees focused on the same humanity in Bessie, using the singer’s lyrics to draw a picture of the Empress of the Blues rather than biographies written by authors decades later.
“This movie isn’t about excusing or explaining but really capturing that life as best we can,” says Queen Latifah in a behind-the-scenes HBO promotional clip for Bessie, which aired on May 16.
Latifah bravely plays the Bessie alongside Michael K. Williams as her strong-willed and manipulative husband Jack Gee, Tika Sumpter as Bessie’s sweet longtime girlfriend Lucille and Mike Epps as Bessie’s plain-spoken bootlegger-cum-boyfriend Richard. Also in the cast are Tory Kittles as Bessie’s brother Clarence, Mo’Nique as Blues icon Ma Rainey and Khandi Alexander, who also plays Mama Pope on Scandal, as Bessie’s cruel older sister Viola,(how is one woman so good at playing mean ladies?).
I refer to Latifah as brave because in one scene, she bares it all, literally. Sitting in front of a mirror, Latifah is butt ball naked while peeling off the last remnants of her stage dress, down to her eyelashes. In the moment, she doesn’t say anything really, instead Latifah as Bessie sings to herself, breast reduction on full display, depicting that underneath all of the fame, glamour and talent, she is a weary woman who just wants love that she can’t find despite having a husband, girlfriend, boyfriend and innumerable adoring fans. This is the beauty of Rees’ talent both as a director and screenwriter—she wrote the script for Bessie as well as Pariah—the pauses and things she instructs her actors not to say but rather show.
“I really wanted to let Bessie speak for herself, so I started with her songbook. Everything about these women was written in the third person, and my whole thing was getting it in the first person,” Rees told the LA Times. “I was definitely not interested in a white man’s perspective on Bessie. I wanted to hear it from Bessie’s lyrics and Ma’s lyrics who they were. And Angela Davis’ book, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” that was like my bible.”
Rees says that she wrote this screenplay around the arc of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s relationship, two strong women in show business who made their own fortunes, loved women and maintained their friendship. But the story’s strength is that while Bessie is bisexual, and brashly so with both her husband and girlfriend living under the same roof, it’s not a point of discussion. Instead Rees uses Bessie’s polyamory to demonstrate her insatiable need for love that she didn’t get it from her mother, who died young, nor her sister Viola who raised her and her siblings. Again, what’s not said is the loudest in Rees’ writing.
Rees’s style is also about action, casual and direct. For example, in the first few minutes of Bessie, the star is punched by a man because she didn’t want to sleep with him in an alley after some heavy petting. But instead of cowering, crying or getting angry, she picks up a glass shard and stabs him before teasingly saying, “It was just getting good to me!” The viewer knows immediately, ‘Oh, Bessie was wild.’ Later when the Blues woman first meets her future husband-manager Jack Gee, I dare say it’s the best part of the script.
“Auditions for the show are over,” Bessie says to Jack in her hotel room with Clarence standing aside.
“I ain’t auditioning for no show, I’m auditioning to be your man,” Jack says.
“You look a lil’ small ...” she replies.
“Baby, I’m built for speed,” he declares.
The lines are so good I couldn’t help but laugh for a good five minutes straight.
Rees also used the film’s colors to reflect where Bessie was in her life.
“I wanted every element to tell the story, the production design, the wardrobe. The color palette changes from monochrome to excess, to gold to flashy colors, colors not from nature to pastels,” Rees told HBO. “With the camera language we wanted it to mimic Bessie’s movements in the world.”
If I’m honest, I can’t say that Bessie moved me as much as Pariah did in its final scene alone—be warned, you will be reduced to deep sobs if your heart beats at all—but I am glad to see another black woman at the director’s table who is making it her business to tell unapologetically black stories like those of Bessie and Pariah’s Alike. We are the better for it.
Image via HBO and Getty.
Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.