An excellent debut feature by Dee Rees (who went on to do a fine Bessie Smith biopic), about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world and become comfortable with a gay identity, while dealing with the demands of her religious mother. I can’t speak to the specific feelings or setting obviously, but it’s a strong piece of filmmaking. The turbulent emotions seem mirrored by the restless camera (wielded by the excellent Bradford Young), the colours by turns saturated and warm, cold and unflinching. The acting is superb, as is the use of music. It’s a film, too, which resists any simple stereotyping: the fact that our lead character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is top of her class academically is barely mentioned, and while it doesn’t help her through some knockbacks, it does add up to a rounded character.
Director/Writer Dee Rees; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Adepero Oduye; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat, Portland (OR), Friday 7 April 2017, and later at BFI Southbank (NFT3), 13 June 2017.
I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.