Delighting in Our Dark Divas: Finally Telling Their Stories

Dark Divas are finally having their day in the sun. There suddenly appears to be this trend (an absolutely good one, I add) on biopics about celebrated divas of color. Hollywood has finally gotten the memo: It is high time to explore the complex lives and vibrant history of a bevy of rich-hued Sistas! Within the past year, fortunately, we’ve been inundated with features. Pick a genre of music–there’s a film for your indulgence–from Ma Rainey, Salt-N-Pepa, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin to Mahalia Jackson, there’s a biopic now. Currently, HBO Max features a searing and poignant documentary on Tina Turner’s life and rise from tragedy to triumph. Historically, Hollywood has churned out scores of rags-to-riches films on an infinite number of luminaries, excluding the icons of Black Americans.

Over the years there have been a few features about them, but only here or there. In my lifetime I can only recall three or four, over the course of decades. For the most part, the Dark Divas have been overlooked, with a few shining exceptions: “Lady Sings the Blues” was first (explain the content), back in the 1970s and the 90s gave us two brilliant features: “The Josephine Baker Story” and “What’s Love Got so Do With It.” The current crop of biopics explores contemporary entertainers and forgotten trailblazers from the turn of the 21st century.

A 1924 photo of blues singer Bessie Smith. (AP Photo)

Viola Davis stars in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, depicting a day in the life of the Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey. Ms. Rainey, who preceded Bessie Smith in the 1920s music scene, was the first Blues singer ever recorded. She opened doors that many, including her protégé Ms. Bessie Smith, benefited from. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” depicts her contribution to music history. While researching for their film during pre-production, the filmmakers found only seven pictures of Ma Rainey—a  shocking truth!

circa 1923: Portrait of American blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939), smiling, wearing a headband, beaded necklace, and a sequined dress. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

Still more controversy surrounding the two Aretha Franklin biopics lingers. In both films, Academy Award winning actresses portray Ms. Franklin. One project stars Jennifer Hudson, handpicked by Ms. Franklin to portray her. This film has not yet been released. In “Genius: Aretha,” Cynthia Erivo in my opinion, does an interesting portrayal Ms. Franklin. The storyline is salacious and revelatory. Ms. Franklin was intensely private about her personal life. Her estate did not endorse this film, but instead cosigned on the Jennifer Hudson version; in my mind, a more sanitized version with great production numbers.

Clockwise, Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone; Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” streaming on Hulu, is a poignant look at the complex life of Jazz great Billie Holiday. This film stands in stark contrast to the 1972 film, “Lady Sings the Blues,” in which Diana Ross starred as Billie Holiday. The 70s film romanticized Holiday’s story, condensed events and people, and packaged the movie in a typical glossy Hollywood style. The writers chose not to explore the abject racism of the era, or the reasons for Ms. Holiday’s narcotic addiction. Lee Daniels’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” addresses her life with more historic accuracy. Newcomer Andra Day delivers a tour-de-force performance, one which garnered her a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award Nomination.

Good or bad, the stories of these great women, which align with history, need to be told. Their lives are interesting, multi-layered, and reflect the times in which they lived in. The lives of our legendary divas should be explored, dissected and heralded. One of the actress has been quoted as asking, “Why can’t there be more than one film about Aretha? How many endless books and films have been made about Marilyn Monroe?” Yes I agree: How many? To our Dark Divas: We say your names, we sing your songs, and now, finally, we watch your stories!

Contributing Writer Princess Diandra is a New York City-based entertainer and vibrant globetrotting raconteur. She has a passion for culture, cuisine, and history, particularly the Black people’s contributions to history.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Diandra. I loved this. I watched “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” last night, and was I ever moved, not only by the story, but the access to move of our collective stories. We deserve this. We need you now more than ever.

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