Bessie and the Blues

Angela Davis’s article Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, and HBO’s film Bessie have very similar takes on the lives of clack Blues Women and the relationship between their lives and the songs that they performed. Several themes that appear strongly in both these works are open expression of black female sexuality, abuse at the hands men, and willingness on the part of Blues women to speak about or even enact violence against men. Each of these topics that Davis discusses in terms of both blues lyrics and the actual lives of women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the film then demonstrates almost exactly. This is best exemplified by the truly impressive number of punches Queen Latifah throws in her roll as Bessie.

Davis highlights in her article the difference between the sexual love described in the blues, and the idealized romantic love present in pop music marketed towards middle class white women. These Blues songs, which are often quite raunchy and discuss such topics as infidelity, female sexual desire and homosexuality, stand in stark contrast to the white ideal of the time. Davis connects this freedom of sexual expression as a reaction the complete lack of freedom for the African-American community in other areas such as social mobility and political freedom. The HBO film shows this overt sexuality as appearing not only in songs but quite readily in the relatively public lives of famous blues women. Both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are shown to be very open with their involvement with other women, as well as affairs with men.

Though from simply looking at the lyrics of many of these songs, especially those about abusive men, the women in question seem resigned and accepting of their situation, Davis states that in context these songs are performed with a sarcasm that makes their critiques of such situations clear. The film Bessie makes a similar point in the scene when Ma Rainy teaches Bessie how to act on stage, to find someone in the audience who represents those who have wronged her: “that heifer stole your man” and “that pinch-backed man that stole all your money” and “tell ‘em ‘bout theyselves”. This scene reveals the anger that drives the blues rather than forlorn resignation.

One aspect of Davis’ article that specifically intrigued me was the progression of the blues as an expression of black female sexuality in reaction to the domination of the religious sphere by men. She equates the audiences of blues performances to those of religious revivals. This aspect of the blues is never explicitly touched on in Bessie, though the tent in the scene where Bessie confronts the KKK is reminiscent of a revival-like setting. However the conflict between “God’s music” and the “Devil’s music” as Davis describes it is not shown in the film, which prefers to focus on the politics within the music industry.

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