Dir: Dee Rees
Starring: Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Michael K. Williams, Torry Kittles, Tika Sumpter
This film can be found online
Being punk is to be black. But is being black being punk? Yeah—mostly. Punk, like most American music is a child of the blues. But punk’s distinction from other forms of music, except for hip hop, and the blues, is the “Do It Yourself” idea behind much of the form of punk music, distributing records, the putting on of shows, and promoting. But before the punks and the hip hop kids and even the folk artists adopted this program, it was first employed in the genre and the industry of blues. Bessie Smith, whom the film Bessie is about, and blues pioneer Ma Rainy were the some of music’s first D.I.Y.’ers
The DIY approach to making money in this country has never been more prevalent or more applied than in recent years. In the film, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as Smith, the film is not just a look into the life of Bessie Smith, the legendary blues singer, but a stark look at the world of show-business, particularly show business in the 1920s. Bessie as a film does excellent work of maneuvering back and forth between Smith’s show-business life and personal life, but the film itself, from the first two minutes can be seen as a call for black artists and creatives and business people to, Do It Yourself. Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith were the original rebels—and “punk” in every way. They partied, played cards, drank, did drugs, had girls, raged, protested and made music that said fuck you to the power structure. Punk challenged the status quo in form, lyrics, and the anti establishment, antiracist politics. The blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainy challenged the status quo in form, lyrics, attitude, confidence, and delving into the private. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainy’s approach to expression, was a message to the man: “don’t fuck with me, got it? All right”. The story in Bessie is of the rise and somewhat fall of Bessie Smith during the early stages of blues as distributed music. I say somewhat because one of the failings of the movie is the speed in which the narrative moves. Bessie falls from grace and it is not understood why. Is it her voice? Her man? Her woman leaving? Her money spending? Her lack of support from the white label heads? Is it her own self centeredness, of which Ma Rainy (played by Mo’Nique) warns her of in the beginning? “The Blues is not about you, it’s about them. You have to know them to sing the Blues”. The film starts out at that crucial moment when Smith begins her down spiral. She is on stage dismal looking, and wasted, lit with a beaming blue light as if she were the incarnation of blues itself, cut to Bessie stomping through the back, cut to Bessie pushing through the front doors of the venue and walking toward a waiting car. The next cut brings us to Bessie’s home where she stands in a long wide shot, in the doorway saying, “Hello” to a seemingly empty house.
As a film, Bessie is less of a cautionary tale like a lot of biopics especially about black figures, (Ray, Cadillac Records, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Hendrix, I can go on), and more of a calling to black businessmen and women and black artists to take it upon themselves to see that their work is seen and that they get paid, on their own terms. From the point where Bessie and her brother Clarance (played by Tory Kittles) get cheated out of their money for a performance, by a theater owner, to the point where Bessie crashes Ma Rainy’s train looking for a chance to showcase her talents and Rainy taking her on, pushing her to strengthen her performance and showing her how to do business with white and black theater and club owners (steadfastness, smarts, preparedness, and fairness) to when Bessie gets on her own and chases away interested labels, remaining independent, until the deal is too good, to battling her approval seeking and manipulative husband, Jack Gee (played by Michael K. Williams) for control over her road show and money. Smith, early on understands that her talent can bring her money, fame, a chance to take care of her family and a chance to be immortalized on her own her terms. Not even elite whites, to whom she comes in contact with in the film at an upscale party in New York, (where she meets an unnerved Langston Hughes), have no pull or ownership over her. Smith can walk away from them whenever she feels it (which she does after the host makes a condescending racist remark) and still make money, and great music. Not even her record label Columbia can hold her down. What you see is a woman driven by fame and ambition, and the dream of a perfect life. Something to call hers— which is the dream and aspiration of any African American wanting to be free. Punk as fuck.
One of the interesting aspects of Smith and Rainy’s Road show production is that there are no white people working for them. In scenes where Smith, Clarance, and others are building sets, and making signs outside of auditoriums or clubs, or by their paddy wagon or, later on around their train, or auditioning women singers and dancers, there are no white folks around. It is similar when we see Rainy rehearsing at venues or when we see her all-woman, save her manager, company on her personal train. All scenes like these are reminiscent of behind the scenes footage of early Spike Lee joints like She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze where Lee did not allow anyone white to work on his sets. Despite hatred and reverse racism claims, Lee did this because he knew the importance of having all meaning and message in his films be controlled by black people—the people he made the films for and about. Smith nor Rainy as characters ever state something like this, as a reason as to why they have an all black production team, but it is stated in the way they treat their team, themselves, other black folks, and how they deal with white businessmen and white people. The feeling, the message is… “ It’s about us. This is our music, our pain, our joy, our laughter, our desires, our experience and didn’t no one give us this music.”
DIY culture, is neither white, white liberal, downtown, or purely punk. Like most movements of equality politics, DIY culture comes from black voices and movements for the liberation of black people. DIY is the politics of the anti establishment citizen, but its roots are in the black community. In Bessie, this concept shows, and no one claims it. However, DIY politics float through the film like lyrics on a song, as a message to anyone feeling down and oppressed, and ready to try.