Bessie

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Bessie Movie Poster Image
Gritty biopic has sex, violence, drinking, great music.
  • NR
  • 2015
  • 112 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Shows that, despite a traumatic childhood, an early volatile lifestyle, and being a victim of racism, it's possible to achieve success and happiness. Recognizes the importance of loyalty, unconditional love, and unyielding support. Presents a vivid picture of both overt and concealed racism in early 20th-century America.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The leading character -- a strong, talented, needy woman -- finds the inner strength to match her outward toughness. She loves intensely and is resilient and smart as she learns to channel her gifts into positive action. She overcomes multiple setbacks, not the least of which is her often self-destructive behavior. African-Americans are represented as part of a diverse culture, with both heroes and villains, who must rise above the prevailing racist worldview.

Violence

Numerous fistfights and scuffles, some prompted by women fending off male predators. A knife attack. Domestic rage and violence. Racist acts: Hooded white men threaten to set fire to a large tent filled with African-Americans; white men with rifles and shotguns shoot wildly at a passing train. Multiple flashbacks reveal a hysterical little girl who is frightened and furious at an unseen, punishing adult.

Sex

Sensuality, sexuality, and infidelity are important to the story. Leading character is bisexual. Lesbian and heterosexual sex scenes include: kissing, embracing, foreplay, and, in one instance, exuberant intercourse. Partial nudity, including bare breasts.

Language

Frequent obscenities, swearing, and name-calling: "f--k," "hell," "s--t," "c--k," "damn," "ass," "bitch." 

Consumerism

Coca-Cola.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pervasive drinking and drunkenness. Heroine becomes dependent on alcohol. Smoking throughout, including instances of what appears to be marijuana.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Bessie, with its tour-de-force performance by Queen Latifah, is for mature audiences only. In telling the story of Bessie Smith, a dazzlingly talented blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, the filmmakers successfully provide an in-depth portrait of the emotional volatility and the music of an African-American icon. Bessie's story is sometimes violent -- Bessie was never one to back away from a physical fight that might victimize her. It's often sexual, portraying both lesbian and heterosexual intimacy with partial nudity. And the film addresses Bessie's alcohol abuse and the racial politics of the era. Language is adult, with many instances and forms of "f--k," "s--t," and "c--k," as well "bitch," "ass," "hell," and "damn," among others. This award-winning musical drama was originally an HBO special event.

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What's the story?

In BESSIE, a young woman (Queen Latifah) gifted with an extraordinary voice, a strong will, and a formidable but untested sense of her own worth creates an astonishing career in early 20th-century America. Young Bessie dealt with poverty and fear, growing up motherless in a "holler" outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Success doesn't come easy for the young singer. Bessie is confronted by predatory men, a segregated music industry, and her own traumatic memories of an abusive older sister (Khandi Alexander) as she tries to make a career. Sustained by her devoted brother Clarence (Tory Kittles); her closest friend and lover, Lucille (Tika Sumpter); and the mentoring of Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique), Bessie prevails. However, it isn't long before disappointments, a volatile marriage, infidelities, and an escalating dependence on alcohol find Bessie struggling again, this time perhaps tragically. With what few shaky resources she has left, along with family and friends who've never let her down, Bessie begins the long climb back.

Is it any good?

Queen Latifah's spellbinding performance as Bessie Smith and sensational music more than compensate for the by-now conventional story of a musical artist's rise and fall. It's challenging to portray a complicated artist's life in a two-hour movie, but writer-director Dee Rees and her team have managed to avoid the pitfalls of such an effort by focusing on the inner life of Ms. Smith. They've chosen powerful moments -- musical performances, key scenes with those Bessie loves and hates, and pivotal racial incidents -- to bring their vision of Bessie Smith to life. Surrounded by solid actors -- Mo'Nique and Michael Kenneth Williams are standouts -- and with scene after scene of demanding self-revelation, Queen Latifah finds every nuance and gives a vibrant, once-in-a-lifetime performance. It's mature material. Sex with partial nudity, alcohol, violence, and strong language make it suited for adults and mature teens only.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can discuss the event(s) that finally turned Bessie Smith's life around, as it was depicted in this movie. What were the key losses she endured? What was the significance of the scene in which Bessie looked for a long while in the mirror?

  • Discuss the racism shown in this movie. How did the scenes of the men attacking the tent show and Bessie's early dealings with white businessmen show different types of racism? What do you think are the effects of such constant instances of bigotry on a specific culture? What prejudices are present today?

  • Obviously, the dialogue and incidents in this movie aren't all authentic; no one knows exactly what was said or done during Bessie's life. How much license do you think filmmakers should take in attempting to portray an actual person? Were you satisfied that you knew the "essence" of Bessie Smith after viewing this movie?

Movie details

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