Bessie’s Blues Feminism
While we didn’t finish the film; there are a few moments in the film that very clearly paint who Bessie was and/or what the writers of the film were trying to convey about Bessie not only as an artist, but as a Black feminist iconoclast to be celebrated. Bessie’s brand of self-love and feminism as represented in the film is a self-belief and the rejection of the normative conventions that would keep her back from pursuing her dreams. Whether it be that she was too large a woman, or too black in complexion, or too poor/too nobody to confront a superstar like Ma Rainey in her lavish train – Bessie never let these walls built around her stop her from actualizing her dreamed self and making the moves to become the famous Bessie Smith. The “intellectual independence and representational freedom” that Davis argues is crucial in understanding the African American Blueswoman identity is clear in this cinematic representation of Bessie; and arguably contributed just as much to her rise and it would to the instabilities she would experience in her career. However, in order to focus this response I will link a particular couple of Davis quotes to the most memorable scene I recalled/noted from the film concerning Bessie’s Blues feminism and sexuality.
“There was no longer a proscription on free individual travel… sexuality could be explored freely by individuals who now could enter into autonomously chosen personal relationships. The new blues consciousness was shaped by… two of these…: travel and sexuality… the blues registered sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom; it was this dimension that most profoundly marked and defined the secularity of the blues.” – Angela Davis Blues Legacies and Black Feminism pg. 8
“…Blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives. The female figures evoked in women’s blues are independent women free of the domestic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed.” – Angela Davis Blues Legacies and Black Feminism pg. 13
“ Daphne Duval Harrison noted that women’s blues in the 1920’s ‘introdcued a new, different model of black women – more assertive, sexy, sexually aware, independent, realistic, complex, alive.’” – Angela Davis Blues Legacies and Black Feminism pg. 37
“brazen challenge to dominant notions of women’s subordination… willing to pay the consequences for having killed her man… rowdy and hardened… fearless women… nor was [Bessie] afraid to confront embodiments of white racist terror… “Angela Davis Blues Legacies and Black Feminism pg. 21-38
My favorite scene that encapsulated much of Davis’ arguments about Blues women in the disenfranchisement of postslavery and their projected strength is the initial scene before Bessie (Queen Latifah) performs her first number in the film. Bessie is seen making out with some male patron in the alley outside of the stage – when he forcefully beseeches Bessie that he wants to penetrate her, when Bessie resists he hits her in the eye with a bottle. To this, Bessie uses her large stature to fight back, breaks the bottle, and stabs the man in the stomach; exiting with a great expression of female ire towards a forceful male “I told you I wanted to mess around a bit; I didn’t want all that!” Bessie pats down her eye with make up with the help of a stage hand, and goes out to perform mere moments after this interaction. Bessie is a sexual being, yes, but she knows her boundaries and will go to very physical lengths to make sure her boundaries are respected and that men who show the behavioral evil of not respecting her right to say no are punished for doing so. After doing so in a visceral and violent matter, she dusts off and proceeds to perform to the crowd a few moments after. This, while early on, is a decent microcosm of Bessie in one moment – a sexually liberated woman, a drinker, a fighter and an unassailable performer. Good writing, and an excellent way to introduced Bessie as a character for those who may be unfamiliar while falling in line with Davis’ conclusion on the symbolisms and strength of Blues women.