Is “Bessie” Accurate in its Depiction of Bessie Smith’s Childhood?
Bessie (2015) does an often awkward job of explaining the singer’s childhood, insomuch that the state of her early life is more implicitly told than authentically shown, presented via a number of flashbacks. The flashbacks inform us that Bessie’s (Queen Latifah) mother died early enough that she wasn’t there to be much of a caretaker, and Bessie’s sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) was a mean, abusive person who would chase Bessie around the house with a knife blaming her for the mother’s death. That’s really all we see, and there’s not much explanation.
Is this really what her childhood was like? And where was her brother?
Smith’s father was a Baptist preacher who died when she was an infant, which is why there’s no sign of him in the film. Her mother and one brother both died by the time she was nine, leaving eldest sister Viola to take care of Bessie and surviving brother Clarence. The film shows us a version of Viola who is cold, jealous, and bitter (both in childhood and adulthood), which according to many sources was pretty accurate.
History Vs. Hollywood writes, “Bessie’s niece, Ruby Walker, said that she doesn’t remember Bessie’s sister Viola liking anybody, calling her a ‘nasty woman’ in Chris Albertson’s Bessie biography. ‘...she was even nasty to Bessie, who did everything for her.’ In addition to bearing the burden of running the family, Viola was left hurt and jaded after a brief romance ended, which resulted in a daughter, Laura, and a general hatred towards men. Things especially got worse around 1910 or 1911, when Bessie’s brother Clarence left home to perform as a comedian and master of ceremonies for the Moses Stokes company. Bearing an increased burden, ‘Viola did some terrible things to Bessie,’ said Maud Smith, Clarence’s widow, including locking Bessie in an outhouse all night.”
While Viola did get the responsibility of providing for Bessie forced upon her, she did her best to support them with odd jobs. Clarence ended up leaving town to join a minstrel group, an action that took his financial contribution to the family away, but did ultimately assist Bessie with her career beginnings.