Head is known for her writings exploring the sources of racial and sexual inequalities in southern Africa. A mixed-race South African who spent most of her life as an exile in her adopted land of Botswana, Head wrote from the perspective of an outsider attempting to understand her environment and her social position. In her works, Head addresses problems of sexual and racial discrimination in Africa by emphasizing the similarities among all forms of prejudice, stressing such themes as the disintegration of rural traditions, the corruption of authority, and the equally powerful forces of good and evil.
Head was the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stablehand in South Africa. When her mother, Bessie Emery, was found to be pregnant with the child of a black South African, she was institutionalized by her parents and labeled insane. Head was born in the asylum but was quickly sent off to live with white foster parents, who later became ashamed of Head's dark skin color and sent her to live with Catholic missionaries. When Head was about thirteen, her mother, still institutionalized, committed suicide. Head was trained as at teacher and taught elementary school children for several years in South Africa. In 1961 she married a journalist but divorced shortly thereafter. When she was twenty-seven Head left for Botswana with her young son because, according to her, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. For the next fifteen years she lived in poverty as a refugee at the Bamangwato Development Farm. Despite the harsh living conditions, Head found in her village a sense of community she had hitherto not experienced, and she did eventually gain Botswanan citizenship. After suffering a psychological breakdown, which became the focus of her novel A Question of Power (1973), Head dedicated herself to writing and maintaining a seedling nursery for vegetables. She later represented Botswana at writers' conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She died of hepatitis in 1986.
Throughout her career, Head emphasized the need for Africans to abandon power struggles. She stated that until she moved to Botswana in 1964, she "had never encountered human ambition and greed before in a black form." In South Africa her experiences with domination had been primarily with the white system of apartheid; in Botswana, she found that similar structures of oppression toward women and other social groups existed in tribal communities. Head's first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), was an attempt to suggest an alternative to the desire for power. This book focuses on Makhaya, a young South African who leaves his country only to become an outcast in Golema Mmidi, a refugee community in Botswana. Many of the stories in Head's later book of short stories, The Collector of Treasures (1977), reiterate the futility of power struggles.
In her later works Head identified oppression and discrimination as major tools for those in power. In her novel Maru (1971) two village leaders fall in love with a young Masarwa school-teacher, Margaret, who admits her association with the Masarwa, who have traditionally been considered inferior to other black Botswanans. As both men vie for her affections, they begin to understand the plight of the Masarwa people, and a union is ultimately created between the two groups through Margaret's marriage to one of the village leaders. Head called her autobiographical novel A Question of Power "a private journey to the sources of evil." Elizabeth, the protagonist, is a South African refugee in Botswana who experiences temporary insanity. In dreams and fantasies she encounters both local and mythical figures representing the nature of her femininity and Africanness. This psychological work explores the roots of female oppression and questions the existence of God.
In addition to her fiction, Head wrote two studies on Botswana, both of which combine local folklore with historical information. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) recounts tales of the Bamangwato nation from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984) focuses on African tribal wars in the early nineteenth century.
Although critics have tried to identify Head as a "feminist" or "African" writer, Head herself resisted these labels, seeing her works instead as individually crafted pieces that did not fall into ideological categories. Critics have noted that Head respected but did not idealize African history and tradition. Rather, she worked for substantial change in customs, envisioning equality for citizens of Africa. Scholars have identified themes of exile and oppression in her works, and commented on the universal relevance of Head's social observations. Commentators have also noted feminist themes in Head's short stories and novels such as A Question of Power, focusing discussion on the topics of sexuality, male images of authority, and the subjugation of women that are presented in these works.
HBO’s “Bessie,” premiering Saturday on the network, is a flawed drama that nonetheless warrants a look simply because of the bright spotlight it gives the underrated talents of star Queen Latifah, who does quite easily the best work of her career here. This sexually-charged, intense look at Blues icon Bessie Smith often feels defiantly episodic, as if co-writer/director Dee Rees is purposefully trying to sketch a portrait of a life in incomplete brush strokes, but Latifah, who is in nearly every scene, never falters in her portrayal of a woman who was too edgy, too real, and too tough to be famous before the world came crashing down around her.
In the first full scene of “Bessie,” the title character (Queen Latifah) is getting hot and heavy in an alley when her paramour goes a grope too far and starts to get violent when she refuses. She does not give in, grabbing a glass shard off the pavement and stabbing her attacker, before going on stage to sing a number. Bessie takes no shit from anyone. Even those who would offer her good advice or further her career are often pushed aside by pride and ego as much as artistic integrity. Across most of “Bessie,” we see the title character confronting authority, patriarchy, the white male establishment, etc. She is presented with an opportunity to find a broader audience but compromise—she refuses. She encounters a violent KKK sect trying to shut down a performance—she meets violence with violence. In one great moment, Langston Hughes warns her to “play” to her white, snooty crowd before she heads into a party to perform. She shoots him down with a glance.
Bessie Smith was a vaudeville smash in the 1920s, successful enough to have her own train on which she toured the country, and to inspire Nina Simone and Billie Holliday. She rose to fame purely through talent and sheer will, but demons like addiction and the ceiling she eventually hit by refusing to bend to the will of white producers kept her out of the spotlight, and even sunk her so low that her family was threatened. “Bessie” hides none of Smith’s demons or resilience. Reportedly in the making for 22 years from a script by Horton Foote, it’s easy to see why “Bessie” was a film inevitability. This is a great story of a relatively unheralded talent.
And everyone involved should be grateful that Queen Latifah agreed to take on this challenging role, one that she had reportedly been circling for over a decade. She is powerful, fearless, and, when needed, vulnerable in a role that could easily win her an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Criticisms of “Bessie” fall away when this performance is considered, especially when one balances the emotional intensity of the final act with the bravado of the first two. Bessie never feels like a dramatic creation; she resonates with truth, whether it be in the longing that led her to multiple affairs (including ones with characters played by Mike Epps and Tika Sumpter), or in her downright allergic reactions to what she saw as fakeness in her profession. Blues legend Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) tells Smith early on, “You got to put something else in it. The blues is not about people knowing you, it’s about you knowing people.” Queen Latifah really got to know Bessie Smith in ways that other actresses couldn’t have.
Sometimes scripts that have been around as long as “Bessie” get over-worked, over-edited, over-analyzed to the point that they lose some of that screenwriting “magic.” The first half of “Bessie” feels a bit too calculated, too episodic in a way designed to give Latifah and her co-stars (including the great Michael K. Williams) the right number of big moments without linking them together in the arc of a life. And regular TV cinematographer Jeffrey Jur shoots too much of the film like a TV movie. It doesn't have the cinematic scope or visual language I wish it did outside of the musical numbers. As for storytelling, I found myself too often asking, especially in the first half, "What are we supposed to take away from this story?"
Maybe nothing. Maybe we're just supposed to know more about an underrated musical icon. For that reason, “Bessie” is best appreciated as a character/performance piece. Like you would if you went to an actual Blues concert, just enjoy the star in the spotlight, sharing some of herself and some of the visions of her songwriters in every note.