In 1929, the “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith made her only known film appearance in a short, two-reel film by Dudley Murphy, St. Louis Blues, titled after the W.C. Handy song that Smith had made famous. One prefiguration of the music video medium, it was the first film to be made to a preexisting song. Sixty years later, the song moves into a third instantiation when Isaac Julien returns to a fragment of Smith’s film performance in his dreamy Looking for Langston. It situates Smith in the context of Black queer literary voicings and media history more generally, thus assuring a primary place for Smith in the history and theory of film. Taken together, these films acousmatic voices provide the material for an aesthetic theory of Black queer film as an ongoing, questioning encounter between sound and image, one where the otherworldly takes precedence over realism.
Between Sound and Image: The Otherworldliness of Bessie Smith
Julie Beth Napolin is an associate professor of digital humanities at The New School. In 2021, her monograph The Fact of Resonance: Modernist Acoustics and Narrative Form (2020) was shortlisted for the Memory Studies Association First Book Award. She is currently working on a book about recitation and remediation in contemporary art, media, and life.
Julie Beth Napolin; Between Sound and Image: The Otherworldliness of Bessie Smith. Film Quarterly 1 March 2023; 76 (3): 48–54. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2023.76.3.48
Download citation file: