Two very different slices of the American LGBT experience will be onscreen in D.C. this weekend. “Eat With Me,” a gentle indie film about a Chinese-American family in crisis in contemporary Los Angeles, is showing May 15 as the Reel Affirmations monthly film series. “Bessie,” a boisterous glossy biopic about the bisexual “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, premieres on Saturday on HBO.
“Eat With Me” is a thoroughly delightful romantic comedy about a man who reclaims his life through dumplings. Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver) is adrift. A lackluster chef, he struggles to keep the Chinese restaurant he inherited from his uncle afloat. He’s estranged from his family, who didn’t react well when he came out to them. And he’s alone, unable to commit to a relationship.
All of this changes when his mother Emma (Sharon Omi) suddenly appears on his doorstep. She’s decided to leave her emotionally distant husband Ray (played by Omi’s real life husband Ken Narasaki). Among other things, he’s decided to take off his wedding ring because it’s giving him headaches. Emma spends all her time caring for her family; the only spice in her life comes from the fiery sriracha she douses on everything she eats.
Elliot and Emma initially have a hard time connecting. Uncomfortable with his sexuality, Emma is too shy to ask her son about his life. Instead, she scrubs his apartment, tossing all of his empty liquor bottles away. He’s too embarrassed to tell her about his emotional and financial problems. Things start to turn around when he asks her to teach him how to make her traditional Chinese dumplings.
Culver and Omi make a warm and engaging mother-son team. Both have excellent comic timing and find nuanced ways to express the frustrations and repressions that bind their characters. They have an effortless chemistry that serves the story well.
Their reunion is facilitated by an interesting supporting cast. Nicole Sullivan (MADtv) is a dizzy delight as Elliot’s neighbor Maureen. She gently helps Emma break out of her shell, especially when she accidentally offers Emma a tab of ecstasy instead of an aspirin tablet. Aidan Barstow is charming as Ian, a bass player who initially confuses Elliot by wanting to go out on a date instead of just jumping back into bed. Jamila Alina and Scott Keiji Takeda are amusing as Elliot’s frustrated restaurant staff and George Takei is perfect in a low-key cameo appearance as himself.
First-time feature director David Au, who also wrote the excellent screenplay, has a firm and fluid touch with this delicate material. The pacing is strong and the narrative and emotional arcs are always clear and easy to follow. The dialogue is pleasantly spare, without a wasted word or gesture. The comic and dramatic scenes are natural and unforced. Au also has a strong collaboration with Director of Photography Amanda Treyz and composers Unobahn. The subtle camerawork and bouncy score are strong contributions to this moving and funny film.
“Bessie” turns to a very different time and place in LGBT life in America: the turbulent career of bisexual African-American singer Bessie Smith, known as “the Empress of the Blues.” Smith rose to fame in the 1920s and 1930s and became the highest-paid black entertainer of the era. Her unique style built on the tradition of the iconic Ma Rainey and influenced such later singers as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Her charismatic presence and powerful voice helped to popularize the blues as an art form.
The slick new HBO biopic gets all the details right. Most notably, it deals openly with the singer’s bisexuality. Smith (Queen Latifah) was married to Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), who also assisted with her business affairs, while she was also involved in long-term relationships with Lucille (Tika Sumpter) and bootlegger Richard Morgan (Mike Epps). Both Gee and Smith also had numerous affairs during their stormy marriage and the movie shows Smith happily flirting (and more) with both men and women throughout her life.
While both Smith and Gee are open about their affairs, the screenplay skillfully captures the difficulty they had in balancing their desire for sexual freedom with jealousy (and in managing her sizeable income).The screenplay also shows Ma Rainey’s marriage to her astute manager and husband (Charles Dutton) and her relationships with a number of young ladies.
“Bessie” also gets the details of the social and political forces of the period right. The remarkably subtle production design by Clark Hunter (with art direction by Drew Monahan and set decoration by Traci Kirshbaum) continually emphasizes the racism of the segregated South and the less than liberated North. “Colored Only” signs frequently appear in the background, and in one beautiful sequence, Ma Rainey’s opulent train car pulls away to reveal a banner for a touring minstrel show.
The details of Jazz Era racial and sexual politics are also displayed in fascinating ways. Bessie is rejected by a black choreographer because she fails the “paper bag test” since her skin tone is darker than a paper bag. She later decides to hire only singers and dancers who also fail the test. She is denied a record contract by the light-skinned executives at Black Swan Records and is initially relegated to the “race record” division of Columbia Records. She slaps New York writer Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) when he tries to discuss his controversial novel “Nigger Heaven” with her, and he later praises the “sophisticated” sound of Ethel Waters over the earthier music of Ma Rainey and Bessie.
There’s also a wonderful scene in which Ma Rainey teaches Smith the business side of show business. With Pa Rainey at her side, Ma Rainey demands full payment from a sleazy white theater owner who is swept away by her forceful personality and sharp business skills.
Further, the supporting performances are generally strong. Williams brings a brutally elegant swagger to his portrayal of Gee. Sumpter is appealing in the underwritten role of Lucille and Epps brings a gentle strength to Morgan, in contrast to everyone else in Bessie’s wild world. Khandi Alexander is fierce as Bessie’s cruel, mean-hearted sister Viola.
Mo’nique shines as Ma Rainey, the established singer who takes the fledging Bessie under her wing. She is imperial in the early scenes of the singer at the peak of her fame and deeply moving in the later scenes of the artist in retirement. Even though she unexpectedly lip-synchs much of her singing, she convincingly delivers some awkward lines that sound like maxims from contemporary acting manuals or self-help books.
Despite these strengths, the whole of “Bessie” fails to add up to the sum of its finely detailed parts. Part of the problem lies with Queen Latifah whose acting ability is outstripped by the demands of this legendary character. Her line readings and facial expressions often fall flat.
And while Latifah is a great singer who smoothly captures Smith’s trademark style, the musical numbers all sound the same. There is little difference between the shy young performer who doesn’t know how to work a room, the popular singer in full command of her music and her audience, and the canny musician who retools her signature sound for the swing era.
A more serious problem is lifeless direction by Dee Rees and the shapeless script by Rees (in various collaborations with Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Horton Foote). Biopics are always challenging, requiring a fresh take on a well-known tale. This script never manages to create a full portrait of this fascinating performer and her role in history. It gets the details right, but fails to grab onto the essence of the character.
The movie starts with a clichéd shot of Smith at the height of her success walking alone to her car while melancholy music plays, then jumps back to one of Smith’s early performances, then meanders to a bucolic scene of Smith and Morgan outdoors in a beautiful field as her career is winding down. Throughout, there are gauzy flashbacks of Smith with her angelic mother and demonic sister. “Bessie” overemphasizes the maudlin and disappointingly downplays the joys of both singing and sex, two things that Smith celebrated.
“Eat With Me” will be screened by Reel Affirmations on Friday May 15 at the Human Rights Campaign Fund (1640 Rhode Island Avenue, N.W.) at 7 and 9:15 p.m. The early screening will feature a Chinese Tea Ceremony & Reception with David Do, the newly appointed director for the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and Sheila Alexander-Reid the newly appointed director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
“Bessie” premieres on HBO on Saturday May 16.