The four-time Emmy-award winning HBO film Bessie, directed by Dee Rees, depicts the life and times of songstress Bessie Smith, a.k.a., the Empress of the Blues. Starring Queen Latifah as the openly bisexual, Chattanooga music legend who rose to prominence in the 1920s, Mo’Nique as fellow performer, mentor and friend Ma Rainey, Tika Sumpter as Smith’s girlfriend Lucille, and Michael K. Williams as Jack Dee, Smith’s first husband, the film is replete with great performances, visuals and overall storytelling. And it’s no wonder, considering that Bessie was also co-written by Dee Rees, who wrote and directed Pariah. If you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and check it out ASAP. And in the meantime, read on for secrets behind the making of Bessie.
22 Years in the Making
We hear stories over and over again about how long it took a certain film to get made – three years, five, maybe 10. Bessie took a whopping 22 years to get from script to film. A first draft of the script was written by Horton Foote. The script was then attached to Columbia Pictures, but due to financial hardship, the film never came to fruition. Foote purchased his script back from Columbia, and producers suggested Queen Latifah for the role of Bessie Smith, but financing never came through. After Foote’s passing, his daughter took the script back to the producers, who eventually got HBO to green light the project — 22 years later.
Not only did she play the lead in Bessie, but Latifah also initially auditioned for the role way back in 1992. But, as previously stated, funding for the project never came through. As Latifah’s star continued to rise and she created her own company, she attached herself as an executive producer and played a crucial role in bringing Smith’s story to the screen.
In 2012, writer and director Dee Rees was hired to do a rewrite of the Bessie script. Later on in the process, she was asked if she wanted to direct the film. The answer was an obvious, resounding yes.
While doing research to write the film, Rees referenced several books, including Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis, Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South by Michelle Scott, and Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. The last book informed Rees both thematically and visually, and she referred to Angela Davis’ book Blues Legacies as her Bible.
Rees wanted the color palette of the film to reflect Smith’s inward and outward growth. In the first act of the film, which reflects the singer’s vaudeville days, the colors are mostly monochromatic. A lot of wooden textures also populate this time period. The second act, during which Smith gets a recording contract, the colors are more bold – fuchsias; turquoise. Pastels and natural colors dominate the third act when Smith’s life finally evens out.
A lot of biopics end with the protagonist’s death, but Rees made sure to steer clear of that. She wanted to leave Smith with a win and wanted to avoid the implication that she was a tragic figure, instead of a heroic one.
The Bessie soundtrack includes several Bessie Smith songs sung by Latifah, including “Gimme a Pig Foot (And a Bottle Of Beer),” which Latifah remixed with vocal ad libs.
Mo’Nique was initially offered the role of Viola, Smith’s sister, a role that eventually went to Khandi Alexander. But after having read Rees’ script, Mo’Nique was very much drawn to Ma Rainey and asked to play her instead.
It’s in the Script
When Rees came on board, Ma Rainey wasn’t included in the script at all. But because the two mirror each other in many ways, Rees decided to write the script around the arc of their relationship. Both were strong women who made their own fortune in show business, they were openly sexually fluid, and despite a few setbacks, they were able to maintain their friendship.
A fictional character, Lucille was created by Rees to show that Bessie was a bisexual woman and to bring a kind of nurturing and softness into Smith’s life, an element that she seemed to have missed since the death of her mother at a young age.
Named after the Tennessee community in which she was born and raised, Bessie was originally titled Blue Goose Hollow. It was also initially pegged as having been based off of Bessie, the 1972 biography of the singer written by Chris Albertson, though the finalized film bore no resemblance to the book.
For the first time ever, Latifah bared it all for a scene in the film. She referred to that scene as a quiet, intimate, peaceful “day off” for her – one that was significantly easier to shoot than other parts of the film.
Queen Latifah referred to Bessie Smith as the role of a lifetime, but she also confessed that she was initially terrified to play her. Smith was a powerhouse and her music and voice was so different from Latifah’s own. But immersing herself in the singer’s music is what ended up helping Latifah out and aided her in connecting with the late songstress.