film fatales #157: wings (larisa shepitko, 1966)
music friday: 29 singers

geezer cinema/film fatales #158/african-american directors series: bessie (dee rees, 2015)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 14 is called "Queer, Black, 21st Century Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Letterboxd's Queer, Black, 21st Century: A Pride 2020 List.

Always good to see Queen Latifah ... she was arguably the best thing in Chicago, and the ensemble piece Set It Off is underrated. She is fine as Bessie Smith ... whatever the faults of biopics, they usually do a decent job of casting the lead. Latifah's singing as Bessie is strong. When we hear the real Bessie singing during the closing credits, we recognize the difference, but we don't decide Latifah was inadequate to the job. There are gems scattered throughout the cast: Mo'Nique steals scenes as Ma Rainey, Michael K. Williams never disappoints, and Khandi Alexander brings her usual intensity. The film keeps close enough to the real story. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie (it's an HBO production).

But it's still just a biopic. Director Dee Rees (Mudbound), who also co-wrote, doesn't make many missteps, and she lets her cast shine. But the film leaves too many holes in the story, or at least, it gives that impression. Events that might have a big impact are diluted when they seem to come out of nowhere. It's not that anyone acts out of character, but when, for instance, Bessie shows up with an adopted daughter, we haven't been prepared for such an occurrence, and this happens to often. This makes the movie move forward quickly, and Rees gets it all in under two hours. But at times, I wanted things to slow down a bit.

Bessie is well worth watching, and it doesn't do much damage to the true story for people who are learning about Bessie Smith for the first time. Lots of biopics do less.


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