Chelsea Williams On…’On the Beat’ & ‘Lady Sing the Blues’

This past week, Darren and I began teaching the youth workshop on film and music videos. The form of the class so far has been to show our students videos we think they would gain something from in analyzing their technique, then discuss how they will use those techniques in the videos they will be making. We can only lead them so much, and after they get that exposure it is interesting to see the styles and the artists they choose to make their work from.

I think the mark of whether an art piece is compelling is if it attempts to say something different or if it says something familiar but using a different form. One area where you can see whether the piece has done this is in biopics. With biopics we get to look back at already plotted narratives that are so important to us culturally. But even then there is still something new that can be said when we create them.

Last Thursday as a part of our Diana Ross Series at BING Art Books, we screened ‘Lady Sings the Blues’. The mark of this film was as much about the film’s star, as it was an interesting examination of Billie Holiday’s charmed but often tumultuous life. Countless things about the story were altered: Holiday was set at an older age when some traumatic events took place in her life, she had one husband instead of three, Ross didn’t have the same girth as Holiday did later in life, and so on. But there were certain other things that the film leaned into. Such as Holiday’s relationship with drugs that was such a big part of her life and a determining factor in her career. The take away that I think most people will get from the film is that Ross’ performance was great. She embodied the lady and we got to really experience her blues. Even if the telling of Holiday’s life may not have been completely true, this film added to our mythos of Holiday.

Black political or pop cultural icons of the past century are like national treasures. We get to retell their history and reassess what we know about ourselves. How we choose to remember our stories can be just as real as how they actually happened. The dramatic and perhaps romanticized ways the film portrayed Holiday become a part of a different truth.

As the students in my class learn about who they are as filmmakers and storytellers, I wonder what they will choose to lean into. Will they change the shape of how they present their subjects? Or will they fill them out and make them grander? It is those important choices of how they commemorate their message that determines the girth of their story.

The filmmakers of ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ did this when they were telling Holiday’s story. What was most important to them? Depicting the authenticity of the time? Or reexamining the events and making a fresh statement on her life?

Our choices reveal what is important to us.