“Bessie” will premiere on HBO this spring

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HBO has announced a spring debut for Bessie, the Dee Rees-directed biopic about iconic bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith. Queen Latifah is both the film’s star and executive producer, and Dee (who was behind the hit lesbian-themed indie Pariah) wrote the screenplay.

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Although no official date has been announced just yet, HBO is giving us a glimpse of what we can expect in the near future. From the press release:

BESSIE offers an intimate look at the determined woman whose immense talent and love for music took her from anonymity in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville to the 1920s blues scene and international fame. Capturing Bessie’s professional highs and personal lows, the film paints a portrait of a tenacious spirit who, despite her own demons, became a celebrated legend.

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An all-star cast joins Queen Latifah, including Mo’Nique in the role of Ma Rainey, another queer blues legend. Tika Sumpter and Mike Epps both play romantic interests for Bessie, while Michael Kenneth Williams is in the role of her husband. While Ma Rainey was more solid in a lesbian identity, Bessie was decidedly bisexual, spending her life in romantic and sexual relationships with women, but long-term partnerships with men.

“I have been excited about this project since the very beginning,” Queen Latifah said in a press release. “When HBO got involved, we were thrilled and we worked together to make something that would capture Bessie’s life and honesty.”

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We spoke with Dee Rees after the panel at TCA about we can expect from Bessie.

AfterEllen.com: Can you tell me briefly about Ma Rainey’s role in the film?

Dee Rees: Ma is Bessie’s mentor in the film, they have this sisterly relationship and Ma encourages Bessie to live out loud. Bessie has this girlfriend character, and Ma is like live it out, live it outside.

 

AE: Ma seems like she was more out about her sexuality than Bessie.

DR: Bessie liked everything. She refused to take a box. I don’t want to give the movie away but you’ll be happy about Ma Rainey’s performance in the film. Everybody went there, and they lived both sides of them. It’s telling the truth of these black queer women of the time who blazed trails for everyone else and were important politically and huge from a feminist perspective. 

 

AE: Do you think a lot of people know about Bessie and Ma Rainey?

DR: I’m not sure! I think people will discover it through the film, then go back and do research and ask their own questions. But Angela Davis’ book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism was really important for me in my research and she really lays out the legacy from Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday and how the chain continues. What they were doing is social protest even in their most implicit coded lyrics were about being women in a men’s space and how to keep your  own identity. 

 

AE: How will these themes resonate with people when they see the film?

DR: I think in the film they’ll see that these are women who were successful in their professions and they didn’t have to make that choice between career and family, they tried to do it all. So I think that is something that resonates in industries where men are dominant, it’s still possible to do the thing you love to do. 

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AE: Is this a dream project for you? Something when you heard you were like I have to do this?

DR: Yeah! I came on to write two years ago, and I replied with two words, “Hell yeah!” It’s something I had grown up with, my grandmother played Bessie Smith records, and I had this old album from the ’70s, One More Time. It’s a vaudeville re-creation so I listened to that all the time as a kid, so all that came back up. Like, oh this is what I had  been listening too, this is black vaudeville. For me this was exciting to see that these women, in a time where the representation were mostly ugly images like blackface, these women claimed their own image and continued to be promoted. 

AE: As I understand it she’s buried outside Philly, in a grave unmarked for 30 years? Was there a period where she was just forgotten?

DR: I think during the depression she hit some hard times. And film was coming into vogue and she had attempted that and it wasn’t the greatest. I think there were moments where she was changing herself – she was getting into swing. I know in Chattanooga there’s a revival to honor her but I can’t speak for people to say she had been forgotten. Her legacy continued through Billie Holiday, Nina Simone. There’s all these women Blues singers that I think who were more recorded than their male counterparts early on. Because they were more widely recorded, initially. 

 

AE: Was this kind of a daunting task to delve into this history and this period, after Pariah?

DR: Not really because at the end of the day it’s about identity, it’s about who you want to be, and coming from an outside perspective. These women were outsiders three ways; they were outside of the dominant white society, outsiders of the church, and outsiders of the black bourgeoisie. So it’s this triple outsider perspective. A woman was able to come in and be her own. 

 

AE: What’s next for you?

DR: I’m working on a mini-series for another network and an adaptation for another network.

HBO Winter 2015 TCA Panel

AE: Do you think you’ll continue to have LGBT themes in your work?

DR: I just always want to tell stories that I care about. I am not going to shy away from it. I do like this piece because it’s a part of our history that’s not always talked about. So, continue to do women and men that I admire.

 

AE: So often in biopics in the past it seems like people’s queerness has been played down or erased. Was that a fear for you?

DR: No, not at all. That’s who she was. It was undeniable.

 

AE: Is there one message you’d like people to take away from Bessie?

DR: The biggest message is that it’s not a set of circumstances that defines you. Because in many ways Bessie was operating in circumstances that were more oppressive than we have now. And still within that she was able to create her art. So for me it’s inspiring for artists to know that you don’t have to bow to the norms, you don’t have to edit your art in that way. You can still have this social impact with meaningful reach. In the ’20s, she was making more money than some artists make today. And the last thing people wanted was a black woman and that’s exactly what she sold them. 

 

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