Art Doc of the Week | T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s
“They were bringing the gospel of the blues to every city and town, and that was essentially, ‘Be free and do what you want to do. This is the way people actually lived, as opposed to the aspirational gospel of the church.’” – a speaker in the documentary T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness
Earlier this year, Queen Latifah won rave reviews for her portrayal of blues legend Bessie Smith in the HBO bio-film Bessie. Part of what set tongues wagging was the film’s frank depiction of Smith’s sexuality, which the late singer – known as the Empress of the Blues – lived without apology. She was married to a man but loved women, and everybody in the blues milieu knew it.
Serious fans of blues music and the culture around it know that a shrugging live-and-let-live mentality has always been par for the course both within that world and within the lyrics of the songs (which is not to say that homophobia was entirely absent). Sexual freedom in all its manifestations was and is part of what gave the music its frisson. Writer/director Robert Philipson’s short documentary Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s is a quick-sketch overview of just how that freedom was shaped and lived in the blues scene of the early 20th century. Its focus is on the women who popularized the blues, bringing it from the black underground to the forefront of pop culture. After watching it you’re likely to spend hours on Google and YouTube fleshing out your newfound knowledge – and that’s a good thing.
Part of what makes the documentary successful is the substance that Philipson is able to convey with brevity – sketching in the origin and trajectory of the blues from work fields to concert stages; explaining how black women elevated the genre’s popularity, and in the process became the first black divas in the world; wonderfully elucidating that the queerness the women embodied wasn’t just down to same-sex attraction or the high number of bisexual or lesbian women in the ranks of the divas, but the ways gender roles and societal expectations of respectable womanhood were upended altogether. In many ways, the most thrillingly queer thing about the film is the seriousness with which it takes the women as culture workers. The point is stressed that women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, Edmonia Henderson, Gladys Bentley, and more were bandleaders, underscoring their roles as members of the band and not just the singing focal point. They’re taken seriously as artists.
Weathered stock footage of sharecropper shacks give way to glamour shots of the singers; original interviews with assorted experts (including jazz historian Chris Albertson, who wrote the seminal Bessie Smith biography Bessie) alternates with crackling performance footage. The film is never less than captivating, even if it ultimately leaves you craving much more. A great place to turn after watching it is Angela Davis’ landmark study Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. One glaring weakness of the film, and it’s common in non-fiction works like this, is to strain too hard toward an uplifting ending. The film even ends with narrator Jewelle Gomez, the celebrated poet, saying of the film’s subjects, “They drank life to the leaves, and taught other to do the same.”
But in truth those lives often took dark, depressing turns that the film elides, from Alberta Hunter spending decades working as a nurse when her singing career petered out (she enjoyed a career rebirth late in life) to Gladys Bentley renouncing her lesbianism in a painful-to-read 1952 first-person essay for Ebony magazine. Far from undermining the women’s considerable triumphs, acknowledging these real-life narrative twists would underscore the vagaries and sucker punches of life – which is also very much what the blues is all about.