Dir. Phillipson, Robert. T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s. Shoga Films Foundation. 2011. Film. 35 min.
Those interested in history are familiar with a tingle of excitement upon discovering a hitherto unknown or forgotten slice of the past. In many ways, revisionist historians like James Loewen and Howard Zinn have built their reputations on eliciting this feeling. There is, perhaps, a subversive thrill in learning that the story we’ve been exposed to is incomplete and maybe more salacious than originally thought. This is the sentiment continuously elicited by T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s. Indeed, to merely hear the title of this eye-opening documentary is to be intrigued. This film, though disappointingly short, is full of surprises and provides an exciting and unique lens through which to view history of African-American musical culture.
It’s no secret that Black blues divas routinely subverted the established mainstream expectations of femininity. This represented much of their appeal. What has been lost, and what this film explores, is just how deeply rebellious these women were. The resulting anecdotes presented are alternately shocking, humorous, and gloomy. For example, we learn very early on of a very sultry female-only party that Ma Rainey threw which ended up landing her in jail for indecency. Not all of her lesbian and bisexual contemporaries were as overt about their sexuality. The explorations of the lives of Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters see them trying to live their lives and create their music as best and as honestly as they could in a society that was not amenable to them being open and honest.
The biggest revelation of the film is the examination of Gladys Bentley, perhaps the least known of the film’s subjects. She was an openly lesbian performer in the 1920s and 1930s who performed in full drag (white tuxedos and top hats), sang sexually charged lyrics, and openly bragged about a purported marriage to another woman. The exploration of her dalliance with the idea of publicly presenting female masculinity, long before society was prepared for it, provides the film’s most fascinating section. Though a little outside research reveals the sad fact that, later in her life, society was successful at coaxing her, the brashest of all the divas presented, into the closet.
As interesting as this film is, the primary feeling this reviewer experienced at its conclusion was one of yearning for more. At a brisk 28 minutes, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness is over just as soon as it gets going. Each of these women is well-suited for their own feature-length films (it is no surprise that HBO will soon release a Bessie Smith biopic) and the short coverage they each receive here feels inadequate. The film also does not give itself quite enough time to develop its main thesis – that the legacy of these performers has had myriad implications on the freedom of self-expression that women of color and LGBT people feel to this day. This point is relatively clear by the film’s end, but one wishes there was just a bit more time dedicated to building that case.
Nonetheless, viewers of this film can expect a concise, surprising, charming, and thought-provoking journey that holds more than a few surprises. This is our cultural history, seen through a unique and too-often overlooked lens and it’s an exhilarating experience.
Recommended for academic, public, and music libraries, as well as music and American history educators.
James Madison University