Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is a young singer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her siblings are orphaned when their parents, William and Laura, die, leaving their oldest sister, Viola (Khandi Alexander), to raise them. Viola is stern and Bessie’s childhood is unhappy. She along with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) scrape by working for local vaudeville shows. Her stage ambitions are frustrated by producers unwilling to feature dark-skinned black women in their shows. Bessie sneaks onto traveling performer Ma Rainey‘s (Mo’Nique) train compartment and asks to join her show. Ma Rainey takes Bessie under her wing and helps her develop her abilities until Bessie’s popularity causes a schism between the two women. Bessie leaves with Clarence to start her own show.