How Accurate is “Bessie” as a Portrayal of Bessie Smith’s Adult Life?


Any biopic raises the question of how authentic the film was with its portrayal of the subject. Overall the consensus is that Bessie (2015) stays true to the root of Smith’s journey and character, though not always to the details exactly as they happened. Slate put together a fantastic article examining each major character in the film individually, looking at the person’s film representation against what’s known about the real human behind the character.

As with any biopic, certain elements were modified to make for a better film presentation. With Bessie, they’re often elements that aren’t important to the grand narrative. The film gets right the things it needs to get right, and colors the rest to its own creative design.

For instance, Ma Rainey’s (Mo’Nique) influence on Smith (Queen Latifah), and her subsequent mentorship, capture the spirit of their association well. The way they meet in the film was fabricated and there’s little evidence of a heated falling-out ever having occurred in real life the way it did in the film, but the emotional core of their collaboration was true.

That same structure rings true in the exhibition of her muddled marriage with Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams), and her adulterous relationships with others. The details about her marriage to Gee ending because he was using her money to finance a career for his mistress, and the tug-of-war battle over their adopted son were all accurate.

Even that time Bessie got stabbed in the stomach after defending a girl’s honor was a true detail, used effectively in the film to craft her character.