Bessie & Respect

Nate Millstein

Maria Sonevytsky

Music, Sexuality, & Gender


Bessie & Respect


The film Bessie starring Queen Latifah was funny, dramatic, and fun. Queen Latifah did a really fantastic job of capturing Bessie Smith’s rough, yet exciting and playful attitude towards music and love. I found so many parallels within the movie and the article by Davis right from the beginning. In the first scene, Bessie is outside a nightclub that she is about to perform in. She is having a sexual encounter with a man who starts to become overly aggressive. She commands him to stop and he hits her across the head. She finds a broken bottle on the ground and slashes him with it, barely even acknowledging her own wounds. The scene highlighted that Bessie was not attacking back because she was hurt, but because he disrespected her.

This first scene shadows a lot of the themes we see throughout the movie. One example of this is Bessie’s relationship with Ma Rainey. While Bessie finds comfort in Ma Rainey’s sexuality and performance, she wants the same respect that Ma Rainey gets on stage every night. It also manifests in Bessie’s relationships with her husband, her female lover, and her other various lovers. Bessie was somewhat open about her sexuality, even with her husband. Never hiding it in parties or in her personal, private life.

Davis, in her article highlights a point in which the blues, normally casted as ‘The Devil’s Music, became a channel for women to explore their freedom post-slavery. While the church became the place of religious expression, mostly dominated by men, the stage became a place of expression for women in a similar way. They could preach about love, sex, and womanhood to a crowd in a similar manner that a minister could. In the movie, Bessie acknowledges this at her show in the tent. She says something along the lines of “ This is a different kind of church music” in which the crowd cheers and sings along.

Lastly, Bessie’s toughness that Davis suggests manifests in blues music is represented really well in the movie. Just as Davis restates Smith’s lyrics “ I’m like the butcher down the street// I can cut you all to pieces like I would a piece of meat”. When during the after-party of a performance, a man curses at Bessie and she smacks him hard across the face. Bessie Smith was not scared to stand up to disrespect.

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