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Queen Latifah stars in new HBO biopic Bessie

Written by Graeme Wood
27.4.15

 

 

Bessie_Latifah

Queen Latifah will star as iconic blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO Films drama ‘Bessie’ this May in the US. The film, directed by Dee Rees from a screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, focuses on Smith’s journey from struggling singer to ‘The Empress of the Blues.

Smith hailed from Chattanooga, Tennessee and became one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s. She sang from childhood and performed in vaudeville; she was mentored by legendary blues vocalist Ma Rainey and eventually signed a recording contract in 1923 with Columbia. She soon after became one of the highest-paid black performers of her time with hits like ‘Downhearted Blues’. During her recording career she worked with many legendary jazz artists including Louis Armstrong, however, during the Great Depression her popularity fell, her marriage to Jack Gee broke down and she was dropped by Columbia. She continued to perform into the Swing Era but her comeback was curtailed when she died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in 1937.

Since her death her music has continued to win over new fans and she has been cited as a primary influence for many female vocalists including Billie Holliday, Aretha Frankling and Janis Joplin.

The HBO film will give an intimate look at the determined woman whose talent and love for music took her from vaudeville to the blues scene and international fame, capturing the professional Bessie_filmhighs and personal lows of her life. The cast includes Michael Kenneth Williams as Bessie’s husband Jack, Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s older sister Viola, Oliver Platt as photographer and writer Carl Van Vechten, Bryan Greenberg as record producer John Hammond and Mo’Nique as the legendary Ma Rainey.

The film is described as a labour of love for the filmmakers, Queen Latifah was approached by the producers 22 years ago when she was first launching her acting career and she eventually came on board as an executive producer.

In a recent interview Latifah revealed she was far more prepared to take on the role now, than when she had been at the height of her rap career;

“I had no idea who Bessie Smith was; to be honest with you…I had to become familiar with who she was in particular. I was just blown away…I could hear her voice in so many people who came after her…if there was a Bessie Smith alive today, she’d blow everyone else out of the water. I couldbessie_queenlatifah never match her true ability”. Asked why she had now decided to play the role Latifah continued; “The blues. I’ve gained such a great amount of respect for the blues…The blues are just as stunning to me now as when this first came to me. If anything I feel like I have a little more of the story of what Bessie had to say” Latifah also said the biopic will not shy away from the question of Smith’s sexuality – as she was known to have slept with both men and women. She said the film will show the singer’s strength of will and refusal to conform; ‘Bessie never walks around things. She just walks right through it’.

Bessie will debut on HBO USA May 16th no details yet have been announced regarding a UK TV screening yet.

Watch the first trailer for Bessie here:

And a character spot for Mo’Nique’s character Ma Rainey here:

And a character spot for Queen Latifah on playing Bessie here: