After 22 years of being in development, the world will finally get to see Queen Latifah’s passion project “Bessie” on May 16.
The powerful HBO biopic co-written and directed by Dee Rees tells the story of blues singer Bessie Smith. Blues is one of the most important genres in the history of modern music. If you take any rock, pop, funk, soul, etc., song from latter half of the twentieth century there will be some element of the blues informing it. Most would associate blues music with men — hard times, hard whiskey, and hard-headed women. A quick review of influential blues musicians will give you names like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Lightin’ Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and many more — all men. (“Bluesmen” has even been adopted into the vernacular.) But the profound impact of the many blueswomen on the form is something that is often (and criminally overlooked). One of the legends the genre is Bessie Smith, who influenced not only blues, but jazz, inspiring many of the greatest vocalists, including, but not limited to, Louis Armstrong.
Queen Latifah gives a stellar and nuanced performance as Smith in the film. “I just spent a lot of time with Dee – the director – really going through different scenes, going through different scenarios with my cast members because we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, we had to break through the wall of not knowing each other, really quickly. There was a lot of just rehearsal, going through certain emotions or confronting things and getting used to fighting with each other or loving on each other or whatever it is, I had a lot to do and of course the singing and we did a lot of preparing with the music. Going in the studio and getting those songs right and getting a feel of Bessie’s sound, enough that I could match what I do to what she does,” she shared on preparing for the film.
Mo’Nique plays Ma Rainey in the film. “Ma Rainey was the mother of the blues and she was Bessie Smith’s mentor. Not only was she a mentor, they were really good friends. She was so open and willing to show her just what life was but was also understanding when she had to let her go and had to let her fly for herself. This woman was full of love, full of heart, unwavering, unapologetic, and she stood proud in the decisions that she made.” Ma Rainey was far ahead of the times. “Back then that women was fighting for wage equality. It’s 2015 and we’re asking for wage equality, so to know that that woman kicked down some doors, she at least kicked them open, so we could have the conversations. When you say ‘well that was then and this is now,’ but all that changes was the faces, the story is still the same. So you pull that from that woman and you say ‘let me keep going because she did’ and you see in the end, she didn’t die broke, she didn’t die lonely, she died of poor health, but she was a woman that said, ‘I’m going to take care of my business, make sure I have my money right, you’re going to pay me what I’m worth.’ So that woman was standing strong for us back then and had no idea now, that we would tell her story,” Mo’Nique added. On working with Queen Latifah she exclaimed, “It’s ‘Ladies First,’ it’s ‘U.N.I.T.Y.,’ it’s ‘Set it Off,’ it’s ‘Living Single.'” Mo’Nique is proud to shine a light on these important women. “They’re hidden in our history. I had no idea who Ma Rainey was and very little knowledge about Bessie Smith because that’s not something that was in my history books when I went to school, that’s not something that any music teacher I’ve ever heard say, ‘let me tell you about these great women and what they gave to history.’ It’s so important that we know the richness and what we possess and what we bring to the table and if we know where we come from, they say, we’ll know where we’re going. ”
Tory Kittles plays Clarence, Bessie Smith’s brother. “He’s the first person to see that she has the talent to maybe take over the world and he supports her in that. He recognizes at a very young age that she has the will and she has the authenticity to become something great and he supports her along that journey.” On working with the director, he said “Dee Rees is incredible. Every day going to set to work with Dee Rees was a pleasure because she creates an environment where you can thrive in. I think she’s a visionary. I think we are going to see great things from her.” This is his second time working with Queen Latifah. “She was mesmerizing. Being in scenes with her, she was incredible and I felt honored to be a part of that … The music of that period was incredible. [Bessie] took her life and she put it on a page and then she sang it. It was sexy, it was provocative, it was violent, it was all of those things that inspire you, that move you.”
Actress Tika Sumpter is no stranger to music films having starred in Sparkle and Get On Up. She plays Bessie Smith’s lover and friend. “Somebody who’s there no matter what; ups, downs, ins, outs, whatever, she’s there … To work with Queen Latifah is everything you would want it to be and more. She’s a class act, she’s giving, she’s loving. The set was … so chill, it’s like family. That’s who Queen is.” Bryan Greenberg who plays famous music exec John Hammond also raved about Queen Latifah. “She’s unbelievable. She’s so talented and so humble and so nice. I’m lucky because I got to see all her music scenes, she was performing, she couldn’t be more welcoming. We just had a lot of fun playing together.” On his character he said, “He was a legendary music producer. He had probably one of the best ears of all time. He gave her a legitimate shot for a wider audience, more mainstream audience. He was the one responsible for popularizing Robert Johnson and the Delta Blues Movement, 30 years after Robert Johnson passed away. He went on to find Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the guy is just a legend. It was an honor to play him, it was a challenge to play him because he is a well known character, so I had to get his cadence down and in real life he had a crazy hair, I tried to tone it down a little bit, but I still had the fro going a little bit.” Greenberg is also involved with The Olevolos Project. He is co-hosting a charity brunch on May 16. For more information visit here.
The Bessie 81 Theatre Tour culminated in a surprise Janelle Monae performance to celebrate the legacy of Bessie Smith. Janelle performed her hit “Electric Lady,” “Tightrope,” “Yoga,” and Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Stacy Barthe warmed up the excited crowd. Notables in attendance included Bryan Greenberg, Dee Rees, Tory Kittles and John Singleton to name a few.
(Photo Credit: Dorothy Hong)