“Bad Girl Blues”: Black Feminism, Sexuality and Alternate Expressions of Femininity in Bessie

Apart from slight dramatization and minor fictionalization of events in the film, I found Bessie to paint a vivid image of the lives of Bessie Smith and other blues women. If we allow our perception of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s music to be defined by the image that Angela Davis has illustrated in her book, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” than the depiction of these women in Bessie is on point. I greatly appreciated the multiple dimensions of Queen Latifah’s performance as Bessie Smith. She performed the role with integrity and depth, providing a character who is both strong and vulnerable; talented, brave, independent, generous, flawed, outspoken, compassionate and utterly human. The film depicted Bessie Smith as a charismatic and lovable character, yet did not place her on a pedestal despite her celebrity. She was a flawed and genuine character, as opposed to an idealized icon.

Questions of sexuality and gender roles in the film where explored with great depth and clarity. Sexuality and womanhood were approached in a way that is reminiscent to the lyricism in blues music. “Those aspects of lived love relationships that were not compatible with the dominant, materialized ideology of love- such as extramarital relationships, domestic violence, and the ephemerality of many sexual partnerships- were largely banished from the established popular musical culture. Yet these very themes pervade the blues” (Davis, 3). Bessie features female leads who reject heteronormative notions of sexuality and femininity. In following Bessie’s multiple relationships throughout the film, the narrative reveals a range in which Bessie Smith expressed her sexual identity. The contrast between Queen Latifah’s character and the male characters (especially Bessie’s husband), were revealing of the values of blues women.

In one scene, Bessie walks into a speakeasy and violently shoves masculine men to the side as she passionately grabs her husband amongst a crowd. Throughout the film, she physically and verbally challenges broad men who threaten women, criticize her physique, and jab at her sexuality. “Even in their most despairing moods, the female characters memorialized in women’s blues songs do not fit the mold of the typical victim of abuse…They frequently brandish their razors and guns, and dare men to cross the lines they draw. While acknowledging the physical mistreatment they have received at the hands of their lovers, they do not perceive or define themselves as powerless in the face of such violence.” (Davis, 34)

In addition to this assertion of strength and power, the film shows a variety of shades of Bessie Smith’s identity. Angela Davis notes that domestic and maternal roles were rarely embraced in blues music, yet the film reveals Bessie Smith’s complex desire to embrace a maternal role at times. “The absence of the mother figure in the blues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather suggests that blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives” (Davis, 13). Bessie chooses to have a home for her family and loved ones, and to adopt a son. This choice is not contradictory to her identity as a blues women, rather it challenges the notions of a singular female role. There is multiplicity in Bessie Smith’s desire to have a career, sexual freedom, independence, but also familial love, and at rare moments- romantic love for her sexual partners.

Lastly, let us not forget the significance of Ma Rainey’s character in the film. The relationship between Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey is critical in the blues ideals of womanhood. While both characters embrace fame and sexual freedom, their relationship is specifically platonic and rooted in sisterhood and respect for one another. Overall, I found the film to be a compassionate and compelling portrayal of Bessie Smith. In my opinion, the effectiveness of the performance rested in the depiction of Bessie as a dynamic, flawed, yet profoundly passionate and genuine human being.

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