We’ve been talking about this movie for months now. And tomorrow, you’ll finally be able to watch the story of legendary Blues singer Bessie Smith unfold. As someone who’s seen the film, I can tell you you’re in for a treat. Not only is it visually impeccable, the story and the performances are rich.
In anticipation of the television premiere of Bessie, we spoke to screenwriter and director for the project, Dee Rees, about how she approached the writing and directing of this piece and why it was so important for her to tell Bessie Smith’s story.
Though Rees is generations removed from the era when Bessie Smith toured and performed. She still had access.
“Bessie is someone who I kind of grew up with,” Rees said.
“My grandmother played her records, my mom played her. There’s this album that they had called One Mo Time, that was recorded from a 1979 a Black Vaudeville kind of sendup. And so that was something I remembered as a kid. So I was always curious about her life. She was a woman from Tennessee, a Black woman, a queer woman from Tennessee, who wasn’t afraid to be who she was.”
So when the she was approached with the opportunity to tell her story back in 2012, Rees said she “really wanted to get behind her eyes and see her worldview.”
But the process of obtaining information to do so wasn’t an easy one. Bessie Smith was born in the late 1800’s and government records at that time, particularly for Black people, weren’t always accurate, if they were kept at all.
Because she was born so long ago–even her birthdate, there’s no consensus–so the first thing I did was go to the public library and pull every book that I could find. And also there’s a book called “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis which is really, really great. It really conceptualizes Bessie. So I relied on that as my main text. I just did research. Even with the census records, there are three birth dates. Everything about this woman is in the gray area.
And while there wasn’t an abundance of information, Rees wanted to make sure the information she noted and eventually included in the film came from the primary source.
“I was careful to try to reconstruct her persona based on her voice versus what other people said about her,” Rees said. “So I would go to song lyrics, the songs that she herself wrote, not the songs others wrote for her and try to understand her personality, what she was interested in, what she was worried about. Because I think that the best way to know an artist is through their work. I started through her art to understand what was in her psyche.”
What she found and what was very prevalent in the movie was that Bessie Smith was very socially conscious and particularly concerned about the plight of Black people in this country. It was evidenced in Smith’s song lyrics.
“After a huge flood, she wrote one of her biggest hits, “Backwater Blues”. And she wrote that about the people who had been displaced. She was concerned the social ills of the time. She has a line that wasn’t in her recorded performance but one of her lines was “All my life I been making it, all my life White folks been taking it.” She was politically conscious. You know the Blues was an early form of social protest. She was very much interested in women’s empowerment even though her lyrics are misconstrued or over simplistically interpreted as misogynistic or encouraging domestic violence, by saying these things, she was creating a forum for women to be able to discuss these things. For her to be creating her art and putting forth the image she wanted to put forth, she was radical.”
In addition to her art, Bessie Smith was also herself when it came to her romantic life. She was in her prime at the turn of the century and during the “Roaring Twenties,” when living fast, loud and loose was something like the norm. Bessie Smith, as well as her mentor Ma Rainey, were very open with their sexualities. And while other historical accounts may gloss over this fact or speak about it briefly, it was important to Rees that Smith’s sexuality play a prevalent role in the story.
“Look how much she contributed. To suppress it would not make any sense. We wanted to talk about it in a real way and not in a scandalized way. That’s who she was. She was bisexual in a very matter of fact way.”
And for those who might not have known her personally, she put her sexuality in her lyrics too. In her 1930’s song, “The Boy in the Boat,” Smith says, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go.”
But Bessie’s music was more than just an expression of sexuality, it was an expression of the times. And, in many ways, her music, and Blues music in general, with its penchant for boldly telling the truth about Black life, was able to penetrate mainstream consciousness. The commercial success of her albums and eventually the radio play she received, introduced Black music and subsequently Black issues to White audiences. Black music would eventually include the songs of the Civil Rights Movement, used not only to unite and inspire the Black community but to inform Whites.
That’s what Rees wants audiences to take away from the film. The Black community owes a great debt to artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Their willingness to speak and sing candidly about being Black and female, opened doors.
Rees said, “These women’s work laid the foundation for the Civil Right’s Movement.” She wants audiences to note and respect the significance of their artistry but also show that Bessie Smith, who was the highest Black entertainer of her day, didn’t have to sacrifice who she was to make money or make a difference.
You can watch Bessie tomorrow, May 16 on HBO at 8 pm.