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Queen Latifah, at long last, gives us a cinematic life of Bessie Smith

We really shouldn’t be shocked by Queen Latifah’s nude scene in Saturday’s “Bessie” on HBO (8 p.m.) although I’m sure some will be.

There’s nothing exploitive about it. Nor is she even exploiting herself, i.e. juicing up a needy project with some skin no one ever expected to see.

In a relatively long and penetrating closeup, she is looking at her naked self to give us, in the most straightforward way, her statement on what she’s doing in this movie. She is giving us a naked emotional portrait – the first one ever in an American film – of a giant figure in America’s musical culture.

If your first reaction to HBO’s “Bessie” about Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues” is that it’s at least 40 years overdue, you have to understand just how difficult it has been until now to make anything that even vaguely resembles an accurate life on screen of Bessie Smith.

First and foremost among problems is the great blues singer’s voice, one of the authentic miracles in all of American recorded music. Her vocal cords were made of steel; her voice was huge. She came from an era before microphones were used on stage. The singular power of her voice was famous for not only filling large theaters and music halls but penetrating beyond their walls and closed doors out into the street,

I learned about music as a kid from the sounds I heard from household appliances – TVs, radios, stereos, computers, etc. Smith was from a vastly different pre-electronic era. When they called her “the Empress of the Blues,” the grandeur of her vocal sound was raw and indeed royal.

Subsequent blues and R&B women have had very large voices in the great Smith tradition – Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, Big Mama Thornton – but none of them was an actress talented enough or famous enough to be trusted with the role.

Obviously, the few black actresses Bessie Smith’s size – say Hattie McDaniel – weren’t singers OR major stars, certainly not the kind to carry off long, frank meaningful appraisals of her naked self in a movie.

While her size and celebrity might be right to carry this vision of Smith, Queen Latifah isn’t vocally right either. Speaking strictly about the quality of her voice – as well as her facial beauty – there has always been something paradoxically elegant about the former rapper. Her singing voice, in particular, has at lower volumes a kind of honey-roasted sound more like a female version of Nat “King” Cole than Bessie Smith.

After the difficulty of finding an actress both willing and able to do it, the next near-insurmountable difficulty in a movie life of Smith, is conveying the easy bisexuality of her romantic life. I’d guess that was one of the things that most attracted Latifah.

Whether it was, or wasn’t, the film is immensely frank about Bessie Smith’s lovers – the controlling manager and life partner, the bootlegger who functions as a kind of acknowledged “backdoor man” and the female dancer in her troupe.

The women in Bessie Smith’s life are prominent here, especially at the beginning, and portrayed as those in her life “build for comfort, not for speed.” This is not the kind of ease and sophistication about sexual matters which was all that common before the 21st century – especially when you’re dealing with a figure considered to be one of the greatest of America’s musical treasures.

“Bessie,” in fact, is one of the greatest things HBO has done, even in an unusually bold period for the premium cable channel. I don’t think there’s any way that the project could have been sold to HBO without Queen Latifah attached.

The idea of doing it has, though, been around for 22 years since playwright Horton Foote wrote “the first draft” of the script.

Latifah was just dreaming of a professional life back then. Eventually she became the executive producer of it. And its young co-writer and director, Dee Rees – whose first film “Pariah” in 2011 was an acclaimed film about the filmmaker’s own “coming out process” – is the kind of gifted, younger, female, black filmmaker that was simply not given opportunities before the century we’re now in, where both the cable possibilities and the boundaries for gay and lesbian stories greatly expanded.

The resultant film is such a gutsy biopic about a long-neglected great American figure that its failures don’t stop it from being an overall triumph.

This is very much a Hollywood biopic, with the emphasis more on “pic” than “bio.”

To take, for instance, one of the most famous legends about Smith: In 1927, she was invited to the fancy Manhattan party of white critic Carl Van Vechten. She famously arrived in her “sin” (gin) and sang three basic blues numbers. According to Edward White’s Van Vechten biography “The Tastemaker,” they were in the style the critic once described as “full of shouting and moaning and praying and suffering, a wild rough Ethiopian voice, harsh and volcanic but seductive and sensuous too.” Both the condescension and the enthusiasm there are about a foot thick.

When Smith had her fill of Van Vechten’s rich friends, she tried to leave and Van Vechten’s wife threw her arms around Smith and tried to kiss her good night. According to White, an inebriated Smith threw the woman to the floor with a few choice obscenities.

“Bessie” changes the story completely to get the conflict across. To convey the singer’s reaction to the event’s effeteness and condescension, she finds out that Van Vechten was going to write about her in a book whose ’20s title casually employed the once-common racial epithet which is now anathema everywhere in the 21st century. (Not so in the 19th and early 20th century where it was common for such classic writers as Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Ronald Firbank.)

For all his effeteness and hauteur, Van Vechten was a smart fan who held great black art up as a great modernist answer to lily-white propriety and tedium. Turning him into a racist who needs a drink flung into his face is a completely errant shorthand way of telling a great American story.

To its credit, the film is too dedicated to its subject to touch the most famous of all Bessie Smith stories, the legend of her death first told, apparently, by critic and producer John Hammond (an upper class socialist related to the Vanderbilts).

According to Garry Giddins and Scott DeVeaux’s “Jazz,” the truth was that in 1937 “she rode to a gig on the back roads of the Mississippi Delta. Her car plowed into the back of a truck; her arm was torn loose and she went into shock. By the time she reached the hospital, she’d lost too much blood. John Hammond … angrily wrote an erroneous account (dramatized by Edward Albee’s 1961 play ‘The Death of Bessie Smith’), where she died shortly after being refused admission. Actually no one in Mississippi would have thought of taking a black woman to a white facility. Hammond may have invented the story but the message – that her death was attributed to the violence that was the fabric of life for black musicians in the South – rang true.”

This first major attempt to show us a great American life shows us a different Bessie Smith. This one, it seems, comes pretty close sometimes to remarkable truths.

As when she performed one night to a black audience in an Alabama tent and they were all surrounded midway by white-sheeted, white-hooded KKK’ers brandishing torches.

Bessie Smith, in the film, stops singing, picks up an axe, charges outside and screams at them to leave – with the implicit threat of a very large and very angry black audience coming right behind her to register their displeasure at a couple of handfuls of Ku Kluxers.

The KKK quickly disappears into the surrounding hills.

Bessie goes back into the tent and resumes singing.

Not an EXACTLY true story but close enough, it seems, to what actually happened to make its telling in a film, at long last, a rare and special event.