Queen Latifah earned royal reviews for her riveting portrayal of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith at the premiere of the HBO movie Bessie on April 29, 2015 at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was joined by her co-stars Mo’nique, Tika Sumpter, Khandi Alexander, Tory Kittles, and Bryan Greenberg at the screening. The cast also includes Michael Kenneth Williams, Mike Epps, Oliver Pratt, and Charles D. Dutton.
Directed and written by Dee Rees, Bessie is a powerful biopic of how Smith rose to fame as one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s, lost everything, and then rose again. The film should sweep the Emmy Awards, and if it was a theatrical release, it would definitely earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Bessie captures the determination, passion, joy, and pain of the trailblazing and immensely talented performer who inspired numerous stars including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Nina Simone.
The film follows Smith’s sensational career, beginning as a protege of singer Ma Rainey (portrayed by Mo’Nique) during the vaudeville era, and emerging as a solo star after she upstaged her mentor and was fired. It reveals the childhood demons that plagued her after growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee under constant abuse from her older sister Viola (Alexander) following the death of their mother. Smith became fearless and independent as an adult, no longer tolerating any indignity. She physically dominated those who disrespected her whipping any man in a street fight. When the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down her performance tent in the middle of a show, she defiantly left the stage, confronted her attackers, and her sheer indomitable presence was so intimidating, the Klan members were forced to run away fearing their lives.
Smith was bi-sexual, and the film details how enjoyed the pleasure of men and women. She continued her relationship with her lesbian lover Lucille (Sumpter) who was a dancer in her show and lived with her, while she was married to her manager Jack Gee (Williams), and cheating on him with her bootlegger Richard (Epps). Her infidelity led her husband to also be openly unfaithful, obviously loving a female singer in their troupe who he spitefully promoted as competition for his uninhibited wife.
Bessie was a shrewd businesswoman as well as a charismatic performer, and became the highest paid entertainer of her of time. She lavishly traveled in her own custom made train, drawing the admiration of blacks picking cotton along her journeys throughout the South.
“The Empress of the Blues” had it all, however at the peak of her success, life began spiraling out of control as ego and alcoholism (during Prohibition) ruined her personally and professionally. Her girlfriend, and her husband left her (taking their adopted son). From living the high life in a sprawling mansion estate, she fell to the bottom, existing in a lowly boarding house where she hosted rent parties to survive. Yet her fiery spirit would not allow her to give up, and her career was rescued by the famed record producer John Hammond. He signed her for the second time to Columbia Records, and paired her with world class musicians, including another legend, Benny Goodman.
The landmark film took 22 years to complete, and Latifah is ecstatic that the movie is finally coming to television.
“I have been excited about this project since the very beginning,” she says. “When HBO got involved, we were thrilled and we worked together to make something that would capture Bessie’s life honestly and respectfully.” She continues, “This is a project that has been close to my heart for many years…to not only star as Bessie Smith but to also produce the film and the soundtrack is a dream for me. Recording this music was an incredible journey and I am proud to be a part of it all.”
Following the premiere, HBO hosted a gala after party at the historic Edison Ballroom in Times Square which was transformed into swinging 1920s nightclub with a live band.
Kudos to Latifah, director Rees, screenplay writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Horton Foote; producer Ron Schmidt, and executive producers Shelby Stone, Shakim Compere, Richard D. Zanuch, Lil Fini Zanuck, and Randi Michel.
Bessie debuts May 16 at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on HBO. This is “can’t miss” television!