Within the first 10 minutes of “Bessie,” HBO’s new biopic of Bessie Smith, we see the blues legend sing, cry, dance, cut a man and kiss, lustily, both men and women. The drinking comes later, but not much. At a party at the home of Carl Van Vechten, the Harlem Renaissance patron and gadfly, a soused Bessie, played by Queen Latifah, belts the anthem “Work House Blues,” to an audience including Langston Hughes, then throws a drink in the host’s face when he uses a racial epithet.
“It was every emotion I probably could have asked for,” Queen Latifah said dreamily. “She was a very busy woman.”
The movie is a passion project for Queen Latifah, 45, who first auditioned for the part in 1992. She had always hoped that playing Bessie in the film, which has its premiere May 16, would introduce the pioneering but lesser-known singer to a new fan base, inspiring people to “draw from who she is and flip her style for today’s music.” Over the years, she watched the screenplay bounce from person to person, while she grew to lead a mini entertainment empire, eventually landing in a position to help develop the film herself.
Now a singer, actor, executive, TV personality, cosmetics spokeswoman and author, Queen Latifah may have developed a signature brand of feel-good feminism. After waiting for more than two decades she is able put a stamp on Bessie’s unruly but powerful life.
“It’s always been important to play strong female characters,” Queen Latifah said, as she did in her ’90s sitcom “Living Single” and her turn as Matron Mama Morton in “Chicago,” which earned her an Oscar nomination in 2003. When she got approval to make “Bessie” as a star and a producer, after HBO came on board in 2009, she chose, with the network’s support, to give the task of writing and directing to another black woman, Dee Rees.
“It wasn’t a requirement,” Queen Latifah said, over coffee at a Midtown hotel, but it was an ideal. “Whenever I’m No. 1 on that call sheet and I’m a producer, I’m always actively trying to make sure that my crew looks like the world.”
She was makeup free (sorry, Covergirl), dressed in fancy sweats, an Army jacket and pristine white sneakers, sleepy-eyed after an early morning flight from Los Angeles, where she lives. “No disrespect, I love white dudes,” she continued, warming to the subject of her hiring philosophy. “But I want to see a diverse group of people who are just as qualified for each position that they’re in. And I realized a long time ago that if I did not intentionally do that, it wouldn’t happen.”
Bessie Smith, too, took care to create a world she felt at home in. Nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, Smith, who died in 1937, was for a time the highest-paid black entertainer in America, rising from impoverished roots in Chattanooga, Tenn. She was boundary-less: bisexual, trysting even through marriage; the head of a traveling show that employed dozens; and a brazen personality who played to both white and black audiences. Though she wasn’t quite the raucous guest the movie depicts, she did sing at a Van Vechten party that Hughes attended. He later wrote that, after the opera star Marguerite D’Alvarez performed an aria, Smith offered a compliment: “Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t sing!”
“She was not afraid to be wrong or afraid to fight or afraid to tell someone just like it is, and that’s a gift,” Queen Latifah said. “She gave me all the work I could handle.”
Putting Bessie on screen required a new level of intimacy from Queen Latifah, born Dana Owens. In bare skin and bedroom scenes with men and women, she is vulnerable one instant; sexy and bombastic the next. “I’m not worried about what people think in any way, shape, or form when it comes to this movie,” she said. “This is Bessie’s story, and it needed to be told.”
Separated by generations, Bessie, who influenced the likes of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, and Queen Latifah, one of the first female rappers to earn a gold record, are part of a continuum of women in music who made their own opportunities and expanded, against some odds, their circles. A foremother might be Ma Rainey, the blues woman who helped teach Bessie about stagecraft, and in the film is played, as a mentor and a sexual libertarian, by Mo’Nique. “The issues they were dealing with then are the same things we’re dealing with right now, gender equality and wage equality,” Mo’Nique said. “Those women were right on time to show us, today, those blueprints” for action, she added. “They took charge of their image.”
The script for a Bessie biopic was initially adapted from the music writer Chris Albertson’s biography “Bessie,” published in 1972. Melvin Van Peebles wrote a draft, Mr. Albertson said, then Horton Foote, the playwright who wrote the screenplay for the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Still, it languished in development, through the deaths of Mr. Foote and the producer Richard D. Zanuck (who owned the rights with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck).
At the suggestion of HBO, Ms. Rees, 38, got the call to write her version of the script in 2012, a year after she broke out in the indie filmmaking world with “Pariah,” an autobiographical lesbian coming-of-age story. She grew up in Nashville, and her grandmother introduced her to Bessie’s music, so she had an emotional bond. “She was a queer black woman from Tennessee,” Ms. Rees said. “I felt a kinship.”
Her research started in the library, poring over Smith’s lyrics. But her script was less biographical than character-driven; she was influenced by Jamaica Kincaid’s work, especially her novel “Autobiography of My Mother,” and Angela Davis. “I saw Bessie as a radical feminist,” she said.
Part of that was her unapologetic sexuality. In the film, Bessie has a girlfriend (a composite character called Lucille, played by Tika Sumpter), a husband (Jack Gee, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, of “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) and a lover (Mike Epps). Though there was little time for rehearsal before the shoot, in Atlanta last year, Ms. Rees ran relationship workshops with the actors. Queen Latifah had her first nude scene, which didn’t faze her. “My friends call me naked girl, anyway,” she said.
For anyone who would use her performance to peer into her off-screen relationships, Queen Latifah, who officiated the same-sex and straight group wedding at the 2014 Grammys, was sanguine. “I know people will see that opportunity,” she said. “That can’t be my concern. That’s why they call it a private life, because it’s something I get to enjoy to myself.” As for requests to discuss it, she said, “Turn that radio right on off, you know what I mean?”
Like many biopics, the historical picture “Bessie” presents is smudgy. (Her death, at 43, in a car crash that generated many lurid and inaccurate articles, is not depicted.) But Mr. Albertson praised its treatment of the music. “This is the closest I’ve heard anyone come to Bessie Smith,” he said of Queen Latifah’s vocals.
Queen Latifah worked with a singing coach — “I don’t have blues syncopation naturally,” she said — a choreographer, who trained her to find the movement in Bessie’s notes, and her longtime acting coach, who helps her, she said, learn “how to separate my Latifah’s.”
In person, the most animated Queen Latifah is the producer and the entrepreneur — the one who gamely discussed the return on investment of her projects, with her longtime producing partner Shakim Compere, which include a streaming deal with Netflix; the reality show “The Star Next Door”; and the drama “Single Ladies” on Centric, a Queen Latifah-endorsed network for black women. “Some of our investors have gotten 30 percent return — that why I’m investing in my damn self,” she said, floral tattoos peeking out around her white T-shirt.
Her activist outlook was forged growing up in Newark, with an art teacher mother and a police officer father. “They were all very conscious people,” she said, “and this is kind of what you did, you discussed life and the future and how to change things for the better.” Among her family friends was the poet Amiri Baraka; after the interview, she headed to a birthday party for his son Ras J. Baraka, a childhood pal and now mayor of Newark. The political education that helped lead her to Bessie was that “you don’t just accept everything that you learn in school as the only history,” she said, “especially when you don’t see much of yourself in that book.”
Though Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey are part of the musical canon, their contributions have sometimes been slighted, said Lauren Onkey, the vice president for education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For years, “the important blues singers were male singers and guitar players who ended up influencing people like Clapton and the Stones,” she said. The hall inducted Smith, in the category of “early influencers,” in 1989. “It’s important to recognize her artistically, but also as a tremendously popular figure, as a star,” Ms. Onkey said. “The records hold up,” she added. “The humor of her phrase, the double-entendres. She could really deliver a song.”
For Queen Latifah, the turbulent life of Smith was still “hard to watch” on screen, she said. But the experience of playing her was unparalleled. “You have to take the seatbelt off,” she said. “With this role, I have to be free.”
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