The film, “Bessie” and the article, “Blues Legacies” give light to multiple social issues such as homosexuality, marriage, racism and brutality. The film chooses to take an extremely raw approach to the era, choosing to fully show the underground prohibition movement, the beginning of black drag kings and also highlighting the difficulty faced to break into the world of the blues.
What the film really chose to highlight was the messages that blues were portraying, in one of the first scenes Ma Rainey tells Bessie that “the blues isn’t about people knowing you, but about you knowing people”, which ends up being a central theme of the film in regard to the responses received by the audiences. The blues, as a musical genre provided an outlet, “blues created a discourse that represented freedom in more immediate and accessible terms”, the lyrics for example choose to explore a more liberal world, allowing people to comment on their partners.
Throughout the film, there are instances of homosexual activity, for example, we see in one of the first scenes Bessie and her partner Lucille, this being the first instance of challenging the mainstream notion of how relationships were supposed to be formed. Davis states, “the representations of love and sexuality in women’s blues often contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions regarding women and being in love. They also challenged the notions that women’s place was in the domestic sphere”. Through essentially having side relationships, did “Bessie” give a whole new definition as to what it meant to have romantic partners. The film also gave light to fluidity within relationships, displayed through the relationships that Bessie has with both Lucille and Jack.
The whole concept of stereotypical marriage standards is ridiculed as well, through Jack asking to “audition” for Bessie’s heart, and instead of acting romantically towards him, does he become her manager and take on this role as an object, only fulfilling her most primal needs. . This sense of ridicule is also seen through her affections with Lucille, which come across as much more tender and loving. We, also see Bessie as the dominant in that relationship as often we see them in a bed together, through Bessie’s body language can one see that she takes on the role as protector.
The role of “Drag King” also shines through in the performances of Ma Rainey, as she chooses often to perform as a man. Ironically, she also attempts to flirt with Bessie while in drag, and Bessie does not realize who it is, only noticing when Rainey is on stage as her male character. Bessie however chooses to adopt her own version of the drag king and takes it on for her own shows, giving Ma Rainey a presence in the film as her mentor.
“Bessie” outlines the complexities of relationships and the concept of empowering women. The film present Bessie as a fearless woman with a dream who cannot be stopped by any forces, but also chooses to expose her past through flashbacks, adding a vulnerable side to her character.