TV Picks: Coming in May, HBO’s ‘Bessie’ A Tour De Force For Star Queen Latifah, First Look!
Queen Latifah talking about Bessie’s style of The Blues at the recent 2015 Winter session, Television Critics’ Association:
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 HBO film Bessie is scheduled to debut Saturday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on HBO. This marks a return to the network for Oscar® nominee Queen Latifah following her Golden Globe- and SAG Award-winning performance in HBO Films’ “Life Support.” She stars as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith in the drama, directed by Dee Rees from a screenplay by Dee Rees and Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois, with a story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote.
Queen Latifah On Bessie:
I had no idea who Bessie Smith was, to be honest with you. I knew who Dick and Lili Zanuck were, but I didn’t know who Bessie Smith was, and so I had to become familiar with who she was in particular. And I was just blown away because I can hear her voice in so many artists’ voices that came after her. And her power, for her to be able to command a room like this with no audio equipment and blow out everybody in the back of the room and further, to me kind of spoke to where her voice came from. It came from a deep, deep place physically to push that voice out. And, then, to have a story, the emotional story and journey that went along with those words as she wrote, to me, was pretty incredible. As I listen to other blues artists, I’m still I’m still enamored of Bessie, and I have such a great amount of respect for what she was able to accomplish. But just listening strictly to the music, I mean, it may be almost a hundred years old, but it has a power that a lot of artists could learn from today. If there was a Bessie Smith out right now, she’d blow everybody out of the water, no question. I could never match her true vocal ability, but I did the best that I could to kind of make her story rise along with what God gave me.
The film focuses on 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.
On Queen inhabiting the larger than life role of Bessie:
…She began to just live in me. I would pray, “Okay. Bessie, tell me what to do here, and tell me what to do here,” that hopefully her spirit would sort of come into me. And I felt like it did because, there were just certain things that I couldn’t believe that she did. She was so brave yet so vulnerable, not unlike today’s woman. But there were so many things that were so ground breaking for that period of time that still speak to today’s issues. And I just felt like she was such a strong, powerful person that there were so many things I wanted to apply to my own life, just things that I would want to have the courage to always do. And she took a lot of punishment. She took a lot of punishment, and so she had to I know what it’s like to, sort of, play through pain, to, you know, keep your head up, the show must go on, you know. Hell is breaking loose at home, but the people paid to see a show. I could relate to so many of those things. And at the end of the day as an artist, a recording artist, I know what it’s like to immerse yourself in the music where all that, sort of, fades away, and you just become one with the music. And that gives you such a peace and an escape that I felt like we were walking lockstep at some point.
The film is executive produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone and Randi Michel. Ron Schmidt produces. 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.