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Bessie opens with an arresting shot of Queen Latifah as singer Bessie Smith, dressed in the white costume familiarized by a widely reproduced photograph, with blue tones emphasizing both interiority (her eyes are closed, and the music viewers hear is playing in her head), and the blues genre associated with her. When the shift to every day colors returns viewers to the movie’s present (1927), an unsmiling Bessie walks through an adoring backstage crowd, press cameras flashing, into a waiting car. Rachel Portman’s score suggests foreboding; the next long shot shows Bessie framed in a doorway as she calls out a futile, unanswered “Hello?” Flashbacks reveals a small black girl, banging on a locked ice box and huddled under a bed, crying for an absent mother. When the camera returns to the film’s present, Bessie climbs the stairs in her grand, empty house, the child’s voice echoing, “Where are you, where are you?”


Author's submitted manuscript. Published in the Journal of American History:

Bessie, Journal of American History, Volume 102, Issue 3, December 2015, Pages 963–965,



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