TV Picks: May 2015 sees the no miss HBO event “Bessie” starring Queen Latifah debuting Saturday, May 16 at 8:00p.m. (ET/PT) on HBO. In the rough and tumble male dominated world of the blues in the ’20s and ’30s, a world with some similarities to the early days of hip hop, one female artist stood above all the rest, and that was Bessie Smith.
Executive producers Queen Latifah and Dick and Lili Zanuck wanted to bring her story to HBO and make the movie with the incredibly talented writer/director Dee Rees and the amazing Queen Latifah as Bessie, a woman who gave as good as she gets.
Starring Oscar® nominee Queen Latifah (“Chicago”) in the title role, Bessie focuses on legendary blues singer Bessie Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues,” one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and an enduring icon today.
Directed by Dee Rees from a screenplay by Rees and Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois, with a story by Rees and Horton Foote. Bessie is executive produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone and Randi Michel. Ron Schmidt produces.
From the past Winter 2015 Television Critics’ Association press tour, Queen Latifah spoke about the blues and the project:
I have gained such a great amount of respect for the blues in such a different way. And this project has been with us for 22 years, thanks to Dick and Lili Zanuck bringing this to me when I was 22 years old, being one of the first major producers in Hollywood to recognize me as a young actress and say, “Hey, there’s something about that kid, and we need to connect her to this.” And so that was a great honor for me.
And from the time I, sort of, listened to Bessie’s music then and having to revisit it all now once Dee came on board, got the script where it needed to be, and became our director, she is just as amazing to me now as she was then. The blues are just as stunning to me now as they were when this first came to me; and, if anything, I feel like I have a little more of the story that goes along with what Bessie had to say and what she was really talking about.
When this project first came my way, I don’t think I had the life journey that went along with what Bessie had gone through to really play this role. I could have played her and done a great job, but I think the life experience, I got to live more of the blues. And I think the blues is absolutely a different style, a different feel. But Bessie in particular was not like anyone else, and her style of the blues and what she brought to it and the music and the syncopation is completely different than anyone else previous to her. And what she inspired of artists who were to come, we still hear it in music to this day. So, you know, it was a great honor to be part of this project.
The film also stars Michael Kenneth Williams as Bessie’s husband, Jack Gee; Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s older sister, Viola; Mike Epps as Richard, a bootlegger and romantic interest; Tory Kittles as Bessie’s older brother, Clarence; Tika Sumpter as Lucille, a performer and romantic interest; Oliver Platt as famed photographer and writer Carl Van Vechten; Bryan Greenberg as renowned record producer and music critic John Hammond; with Charles S. Dutton as Ma Rainey’s husband, William “Pa” Rainey; and Oscar® winner Mo’Nique as blues legend Ma Rainey.