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Jun 16 2020

Queen Latifah's "Bessie"

byCláudio Alves

Sometimes, when watching a particularly starry TV production, whether it's a movie or a miniseries, one wonders how it might have impacted the Oscar race if had been released on the big screen. Would Mike Nichols' epicAngels in Americahave made Jeffrey Wright an Oscar nominee back in 2003? Could Drew Barrymore have snagged Sandra Bullock's Oscar ifGrey Gardenshad gone to movie theaters? With the2002 Supporting Actress Smackdownnearly upon us, I began to wonder how Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah might have figured in the 2015 Oscar race with herBessie.After all, that HBO film is one of AMPAS's favorite types of buzzy titles, a famous musician's biopic with a cast full of prestigious names…

After the critical success ofPariahand before she directedMudboundfor Netflix, Dee Rees did some admirable work on TV. She was responsible for an episode ofEmpireand got some much-deserved Emmy love for the aforementionedBessie. Like many a biopic, the picture is extremely conventional but its subject is one rarely explored by the Hollywood studios. Telling the story of legendary Blues singer Bessie Smith, the TV movie is a portrait of Queer Black History covered in sequins and plumes, smelling of gin and sweat, glamorous but full of genuine feeling. The actors responsible for giving life to such a tale are particularly impressive, sinking their teeth into meaty roles with passion.

In supporting parts, Mo'Nique and Khandi Alexander steal the spotlight whenever they can, but, overall, Bessie is The Queen Latifah Show through and through. Playing up her character's unapologetic ambition and sensuality, the actress creates a full-bodied representation of the immortal songstress. When on stage, she's often magnetic, but there's more to Latifah's Bessie than the awesome diva that dazzled audiences of the 1920s and 30s. She's also a woman struggling under the weight of childhood trauma, problems with addiction, and the prejudices of a racist society that would rather see her dead than thriving.

It's a mercurial tour-de-force that's not afraid to shine a light on the character's uglier traits or give voice to her frustration. Latifah isn't playing a saint canonized by the passage of history, but a woman who deserves our respect, someone real, not an ideal of silver screen hagiography. It's a pity that the script isn't at the level of its leading lady and that the visuals, while lush, leave a bit to be desired when one comparesBessieto Rees' other features. Still, when one talks about Oscar success, conventionality isn't a handicap, quite the contrary.

With a few adjustments, this TV movie could have found a place for itself on the big screen and conquered a place among its year's Oscar contenders. This isn't to say that television is lesser than cinema, though it would have been great to have seen Latifah, as well as Mo'Nique, back in the movie awards conversation.

2015 was famously the year whose all-white lineup in the acting categories brought upon the #OscarsSoWhite outrage.April Reignstarted a movement that has caused some needed change in the way many people and institutions look at the Academy Awards and their general lack of diversity. More importantly, the scandal forced AMPAS to reconsider their complacency and voting systems. The results of their initiatives aren't quick to be noticed or perfect (not whenGreen Bookis a Best Picture winner), but the effort is important nonetheless.

Would you have liked to see Queen Latifah'sBessieamong the 2015 Best Actress contenders?

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Reader Comments (11)

Queen Latifah brought it as she should've gotten the Emmy while Mo'Nique and Dee Rees should've gotten Emmys as well. It was better than I thought it would be.

June 16, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I believe Drew Barrymore would have won the Oscar for Grey Gardens.

June 16, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterRachel

I thought Bessie was an amazing film. However, I am doubtful of Queen Latifah's ability to snag an Oscar. After all, she lost the Emmy to Frances McDormand in Olive Kittridge and she lost the Golden Globe to Lady Gaga in American Horror Story.

I think part of the problem with Queen Latifah earning the respect she deserved for such a magnificent portrayal was the decision to have the nude scene. Bessie is alone in front of a mirror. The camera lingers while the character silently allows the audience to examine her in a rare moment of solitude. The sequence was riveting, but the media hype around it became prurient.

Most promotional interviews focused on THAT scene. Queen Latifah was direct in responding to the questions, "Luckily my friends called me “naked girl” because I don’t really like clothes anyway. I gained 10 pounds when I went to Atlanta to shoot this—I felt like that was more natural, more real for that scene. I think it’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the film—and powerful—because it is her, stripped down. She’s absolutely alone. She’s successful and yet here she comes home to an empty house. To Dee that was very important—and to myself, being someone who’s a successful entertainer and having been in those moments."

Despite such candid responses, the scene distracted from this mutlitalented woman giving what has turned out to be one of the great performances of her career.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJames

"Bessie" is definitely one of Queen Latifah's most inspired performances, but Frances Mcdormand in "Olive Kitteridge" is sublime.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterDl

Like Drew Barrymore in a Grey Gardens this performance had the makings of finding an Oscar narrative and buzz to take Latifah all the way to the podium.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterTears

Love this performance and she would have been Oscar nominated and as a well liked former nominee Could very well have snatched the trophy. Sigh.

(Your piece was a balm and we are all thankful that gross Nathaniel piece is off the front page, no longer taunting people with it’s petty selfcentred whining.)

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterHonor

She's indeed spectacular in Bessie but McDormand in Oliver Kitteridge is next level great. She deservedly won all her awards (golden globe loss inexusable)

Latifah I love in films like Life Support, Girls Trip and Set it Off, she is deserving of so much.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterEoin

I remember being a little let down by the film overall, but this is the best performance of Latifah's career and she would be more than deserving of an Oscar nomination if it were given a theatrical release. I definitely think she would be in the conversation, at the very least.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

McDormand deservedly won that Emmy but Latifah is indeed magnificent in this. And I actually think she should've triumphed in this category for LIFE SUPPORT!

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I don't think Latifah would have a problem getting a nomination that year. Dee Rees absolutely deserved a best director nomination as well. I don't think Mo'Nique would get in. Supporting actress was stacked that year unlike best actress. She would have a lot more competition with really little screen time.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterTom G.

奎恩·拉提法was, I doubt it would have snaged any oscar. nomination. I think it would have had golden globes and guild awards nominations, but hardly any oscars, like Beasts of no nation.
Am I the only one who found Michael Kenneth Williams also amazing? Such a terrific actor, and then he blowed my mind in that court scene in When they see us.

June 17, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJ

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