HBO’s biopic, Bessie, premieres tonight, starring Oscar nominee Queen Latifah as blues legend Bessie Smith. Queen Latifah discussed the film in a press release from HBO, talking about how the project has been decades in the making for her and how she prepared for her role, finding ways to identify with Smith.
Queen Latifah first auditioned for the role of the blues legend over 20 years ago, but kept faith that the project would finally come to fruition, even though she knew very little about Bessie Smith at the time she first sought the starring role.
“It’s been a long time, but it was a story worth telling and a character worth sticking with. It’s been satisfying to finally see it happen. I’m looking forward to people finding out who Bessie Smith is if they don’t know about her already…”
“I didn’t know who Bessie was when this movie came to me in my early 20s. I did some homework and realized how influential she was and what amazing things she accomplished. For example, when you find out what an influence she was on Billie Holiday, it brings her importance into focus.”
The film was directed by Dee Rees (Pariah) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. With so much potential material to focus on during Bessie Smith’s life, the writers decided to focus the film on Smith’s transformation from struggling unknown into “The Empress of the Blues.” Bessie Smith earned that title by becoming an icon of blues music and one of the most successful singers of the 1920s.
Queen Latifah sings in the film, yet realized to try to imitate such a great artist wouldn’t work, so she tried to compromise to find the right blend between herself and Bessie Smith.
“I tried to draw on her style in different ways, whether it’s her vibrato or the way she said certain words. Listening to Bessie as a musician is amazing because she does something I like to do, which is bounce around the tempos, go from 4/4 to thirds, then swing something and jump back. In one song she can go from gospel to jazz to straight blues.”
“Bessie’s style was unlike anyone else’s. She was a real powerhouse and had a lot of grit in her voice. You could hear when she was partying really hard and when she wasn’t. I just tried to find enough similarities of what she does in my own voice.”
Queen Latifah says she could see the parallels in the blues of the 20s and hip-hop today in expressing an under-represented culture in mainstream, white America, but she felt a more personal connection and parallel with playing Smith on the screen. She felt a connection with how Bessie would fight for others, but not always for herself.
“Bessie was the type of person who would fight for someone else quicker than she’d fight for herself, and personally, I can relate to that. I’ve never like bullies, and as early as second grade I was sticking up for my classmates who were being bullied. But when I was bullied, I felt the same fear as everyone else.”
“Not that Bessie wouldn’t stick up for herself, because she damned sure would. She wasn’t always right. She was wrong as often as she was right, but that’s just the human condition. It was important for us to show that.”
However, Queen Latifah says the film also shows Bessie Smith’s vulnerable side in her search for love and that she wished she could have graced the world with her talent many more years.
“I wish she had lived long enough to go into jazz because she was headed that way. Bessie would have been one of the most incredible jazz singers ever to walk the face of the planet, because she was such a damn good singer.”
Bessie premieres May 16 on HBO at 8 p.m. ET.