What’s Worth Watching: Queen (Latifah) of the Blues

Frank Masi/HBO

Bessie, (Saturday, May 16, 8/7c, HBO)

1920s blues legend Bessie Smith lived how she sang. Delivering a line that could just as easily have been one of her chart-busting singles—”I can give it as hard as I can take it, and I don’t mind going to jail”—Queen Latifah brings the “Empress of the Blues” to life in a performance of lusty ferocity. She’s a towering presence in a sensually tumultuous and entertaining biopic that took more than 20 years to come to screen (with the late Richard D. Zanuck among the executive producers, and the late Horton Foote among those credited with the original story treatment). Director/co-writer Dee Rees honors the robust spirit of the film’s larger-than-life subject, although we might have appreciated amid the colorful histrionics a better sense of the impact her music had on the culture at large.

And yet, Bessie’s story is juicy enough to fill multiple seasons of Empire, with its fearless heroine juggling sexual partners of both sexes while facing down anyone who would patronize her for her gender or race. Throughout, Latifah is flanked by a marvelous supporting cast, including Michael Kenneth Williams as her combative husband—the scene in which he “auditions” to be her man is a show-stopper—and Mo’Nique as her mentor and sometimes headlining rival, Ma Rainey. If the Queen and Mo’Nique wanted to take their act on the road, I’d be first in line.