HBO's "Bessie" Showcased the Importance of Seeing Queer Black Womanhood on Screen

 by Aisha N. Davis

Last Saturday night, Bessie, a biopic about early 20th century blues singer Bessie Smith, premiered on HBO. Prior to and following the premiere, the film garnered acclaim for its bold storytelling, passionate acting, and unapologetic honesty. Many are commending the all-star team of actresses and actors who brought Bessie Smith’s life to the attention of audiences who may have never heard of the songstress, once nicknamed “The Empress of Blues.” And though HBO is no stranger to deeply moving biopics, Bessie accomplished something that even the Emmy-winning Introducing Dorothy Dandridge could not: it unyieldingly presented the life of an acclaimed queer* Black woman.

It is not surprising that Bessie has been successful. With Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Khandi Alexander, and Michael K. Williams starring and Dee Rees as screenwriter and director, the film possesses a plethora of talent. This combination of skill both in front of and behind the camera resulted in a film that does not just focus on the sexuality of the main character, but skillfully incorporates it as part of her life. When speaking to NPR, Rees touched on her choices in presenting Smith’s sexuality as seen in the film:
I wanted to present her sexuality in a very matter-of-fact light. You know, it's not scandalized, it's like she loves who she loves. If you look to her song lyrics, she has lyrics that refer to homosexuality. If you look at Ma Rainey, she has lyrics about gay people. Same with [blues singer] Lucille Bogan. So I look to these women's lyrics to find the authenticity of their experience. As an artist, you don't sing about things you don't see. You don't make things up completely ... They were just writing what they saw.
In many ways, this lack of scandal or sensationalism makes Bessie Smith’s story more relatable to Black women currently living and identifying within the LGBTQ community. Sexuality is just one part of LGBTQ Black women's full identities. Unlike many media representations of LGBTQ people, whether Black women or otherwise, Bessie presents a well-rounded character whose total existence is not predicated upon the sex or gender of her partners.

When we bear witness to same-sex relationships in this film, they feel natural. In fact, Bessie Smith's sexual orientation is so normalized that the film feels neither bogged down in labels and definitions, nor relegated to the “special interests” list. When we see Bessie's relationship with other women, it's not shown to us as revelatory moments or plot gimmicks, but merely part of her life. The effect of this normalization is twofold: (1) the focus on Smith’s sexual orientation does not overpower the story being told about her life; and (2) Smith's story illustrates and reminds us of the longstanding existence of queer Black women.

Think about it: How many non-heterosexual Black characters can you name in film and television? Now, of those characters, how many have been defined, in large part, by their sexual orientation? Did they have to deal with judgmental parents? Odds are, a major part of their storyline has focused on them coming out, or being blackmailed or threatened if they are not out. In terms of stereotypes, how many characters have been presented as promiscuous? And if they they were written as explicitly queer or bisexual, were they called confused?

Oftentimes, LGBTQ characters must go through some form of turmoil or hypersexualization that is directly related to their sexual orientation. For many shows, LGBTQ characters are introduced as the “LGBTQ character” and their sexual orientation becomes their major story arc. By using sexual orientation as a plot, filmmakers and television producers create characters who are either one-dimensional, or whose other personality traits and life experiences are so linked to their sexual orientation, that they would barely be a character if that part of their identity were removed.

Dee Rees steers Bessie away from these tired tropes. There is no “Aha!” moment when it comes to Smith’s queerness, and there is very little dialogue that actually broaches the conversation. In doing this, Rees’ presentation feels revolutionary. This character—based on an actual, popular Black woman singer—never suffers from inner turmoil in “coming to terms” with her orientation. We follow her life without her queerness being viewed as the only significant thing about her character. Without this sensationalizing or hypersexualization, Bessie documents the life of a phenomenal Black woman who also happened to be queer.

Those three words—Queer Black Woman—signify why the importance of representation especially matters in this film. We know there are definite benefits for young people to see some version of themselves in popular media. There have been some strides toward greater representation of Black women in film and TV, but finding positive representations of a queer Black women in the media is few and far between. After Saturday, Bessie can be counted amongst The L Word, True Blood, Orange is the New Black, The Fosters, and Pretty Little Liars as one of the limited representations of LGBTQ Black women on the small screen.

Bessie reminds us that the limited recognition of LGBTQ Black women is not because their existence is rare, but rather because they are often erased. Lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans Black women live at the intersection of three marginalized identities, and thus, racism, sexism, and homophobia/transphobia limit the representation and recognition of these women. Bessie is a step in the right direction of including these women’s stories in our quest for greater representation in the future.

At a time where Black people, LGBTQ people, and women are all demanding equality, we are given a film where a woman who embodies all three identities lives unapologetically and on her own terms. Of course, we know that queer Black women have always existed, but there is little representation of queer Black women’s legacies. As such, Bessie’s inclusion of two central characters who are queer Black women shines a light where many have failed to look.

This film is a step in the right direction for representation and awareness of queer Black women. With Bessie, Dee Rees and Queen Latifah have breathed new life into the dynamic and electrifying life of Bessie Smith and given queer Black women a needed moment in the spotlight. From here, we must continue to recognize and celebrate the lives of queer Black women today and honor those of the past.

*Please note: I use queer instead of bisexual throughout because it is a broader term and I am not sure if there is any record of Bessie Smith identifying herself as any one term.

Photo: HBO

Aisha N. Davis, Esq. is an attorney focusing on human and civil rights both domestically and internationally, and with an eye toward intersectionality. She is also a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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