You don’t have to be a fan of blues legend Bessie Smith — or the musical genre in general — to fall in love with HBO’s Bessie. But oh, the experience that awaits you if you are.
Twenty-two years in the making, the project was first brought to a young Queen Latifah — then a successful singer and burgeoning actress — by the prolific producing team Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck, who had tapped To Kill a Mockingbird screenwriter Horton Foote to pen the script.
Progress on the film ebbed and flowed until it landed in the hands of writer/director Dee Rees, who was gaining good notices for her coming-of-age story Pariah and leapt at the chance to present the “Empress of the Blues” as not simply a brassy, boozy goodtime girl, but a complex symbol of her era and social issues that still fester today.
The result — starring the now 45-year-old Latifah (who co-executive produces) and embroidered with scrumptious visuals and musical performances — is an exhilarating survivor story rich with insight on race, human bonds and how women held and lost power during a volatile time in American history and the entertainment business.
Rees smiles and holds up a dog-eared copy of Angela Y. Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday to illustrate where she jumped aboard. “This was my bible, because I really wanted to get a woman’s take on Bessie,” she says. “I very purposefully used Angela’s book because it gets into the backstory and the history and it really gave me a truer perspective.”
Then Rees turned to the purest source of Smith’s emotions — her music and lyrics and how they, like Bessie and the blues as a whole, evolved over time.
“The blues gets criticism because people interpret the lyrics at this very literal semantic level,” explains Rees. “But when you realize that what they’re saying is actually not just about the personal, it’s about this larger collective problem, that’s where it’s exciting and that’s where there’s so much that’s deeper. It’s not just about domestic issues — it’s also about poverty and homelessness, and by speaking them, they gave permission to talk about them.
“So for Bessie, I thought it was important to start with ‘Young Woman’s Blues,’” Rees adds, “because that song is like a manifesto, it’s like a declaration of self: Here’s who I am. Here’s who I’m not and here’s what I won’t do. And then throughout the film, she proceeds to contradict what she says she wasn’t going to do — and then also uphold it.”
As the film opens, Bessie is a popular Chattanooga chanteuse with an appetite for vice, a longing for fame and a deep well of emotional turmoil caused by losing her parents before she turned 10. Raised by her frosty older sister Viola (Scandal’s Khandi Alexander, who does much with limited screen time), Bessie craves love, but learned early to get by on her own. And when Ma Rainey’s traveling show pulls into town, Bessie barges in on the famous singer and pleads to join on. Recognizing something in the younger woman, Ma (Mo’Nique, whose chemistry with Latifah is soul deep) takes Bessie under her wing, teaching her business acumen and how to perform and becoming a mother figure to the motherless child.
The film offers a strikingly non-clichéd portrayal of the South in the 1920s — how much freedom Bessie and Ma had to live their bisexuality openly and gain power in business and their own community — without glossing over how much violence and prejudice were still a part of the social fabric. Women supported women, loving each other in romantic and platonic ways, forgiving and uplifting each other and providing meaningful employment for one another. “It really bothers me, the thought of women being erased from history,” says Latifah. “To me, it’s how we continue as a society to not evolve. There’s no way possible that women are not powerful, strong leaders. We save the day a lot — and we create the day a lot.”
One of Bessie’s most stunning revelations is the black community’s use of the so-called “paper bag test” as a means of using skin color to determine status within their own race. Falling victim to it herself in the course of her career, Bessie Smith turned the tables as her fame mounted, hiring singers and dancers who were far darker than the paper bag held up to her own face time and again.
“She has this great line — ‘I ain’t no high yella, I’m a deep killer brown,’ says Rees, “and to me that was very character-revealing. There’s all these micro-social issues that people don’t talk about, and colorism was something that was rampant among whites and blacks. The fact that she could shout it out loud — that made every brown-skinned woman in the audience hold their head a little higher.”
“When you have to fight against a brown paper bag test in your own community, that is years of institutionalized racism and slavery that have gotten you to that point,” adds Latifah. “There’s no one white in that whole scene — yet, everyone’s being judged on the color of their skin. Neither was right, but it’s imagining how she might have taken that perspective and used it.”
To further get inside the mind of her character — who understood her power as a singer but felt unworthy of the true love she longed for — Latifah and the cast listened to recorded interviews with Smith’s niece Ruby Walker, to whom Smith was especially close even after her split from Walker’s uncle, Jack Gee (played by Boardwalk Empire’s Michael K. Williams). “It changed something in us,” she says. “It gave us an even closer look into the life of Bessie, and the world around her. She could give it as much as she could take it, true, but she was as generous as she was selfish. She was the juxtaposition of all of these things, back and forth. She was the right in the wrong. She was the good in the bad. She was the truth in the liar. She lived in many different cultures, but yet she was still her.”
So even when the Great Depression stalled her career and eroded her income, Bessie sang on, paving the way for legends like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
“To this day, I’ve never heard anyone who can sing like Bessie Smith,” Latifah smiles. “So our Bessie had to be kind of ‘Latifah’s Bessie.’ I can hear people’s styles and their choices and the rhythm of what they’re choosing and what they’re doing. Once I started to really hear that, then it was like, ‘OK, cut. Get rid of everything we’ve recorded. Let’s start right now, because here she comes!’— and she was in me.
“If Bessie Smith was recorded on today’s equipment, you would never have heard anything like it in your life,” she adds. “She would do for blues what Whitney or Michael did for pop and R&B, what Mick Jagger and Bruce are to rock. That’s what Bessie is to the blues.”
Bessie premieres May 16 at 8pm ET on HBO.