HBO pulled out all the stops for its latest original film, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah in the titular role of Bessie Smith, the “Empress of Soul.” The film debuted Saturday, May 16th after 22 years of delays, rewrites, studio changes and more, a dream finally fulfilled for many involved.
HBO took a very serious (and expensive) stance on this movie and what its importance is historically. They crafted a week of experiences for tastemakers and media in both Los Angeles and New York City. In Los Angeles, there was a brunch, local artist showcase, a workshop for songwriters and producers and, lastly, a special concert featuring special guest Solange.
At the brunch, we got to talk to a host of cast, producers, studio executives and more while enjoying a meal and watching an exclusive clip of the (then) upcoming film. While speaking with Shelby Stone, the VP of Production for Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment, she told us that this film was 22 years in the making. A fun fact — the role of Bessie Smith was one of the first roles that Queen Latifah EVER auditioned for. After many studio changes, it landed at HBO and the excellent African-American director Dee Rees (Pariah) was brought in to helm it. Rees provided a fresh take on the story that had been unseen for all these years, and they gave it to her to finally make into a full-length film after years in development hell.
Also in attendance were the effervescent Tika Sumpter and Tory Kittles, both of whom make impactful contributions to Bessie. HBO rolled out the red carpet for bloggers and took the time to really show how involved they were in this movie, their belief in Queen Latifah, the conviction about the music and quality and to present this movie to the public as one that is meant to illuminate and inform.
Special guest Solange did her own version of the blues, which some would call “alternative R&B," but she delighted the crowd with her assuredness in her talent, her presence on stage and her enjoyment of what she does and how it makes her audience feel. Blues has had an impact that has been unmatched on the American music scene, and it’s all thanks to pioneers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey (who is played by Mo’Nique in the movie).
The movie itself was a well done, well conceived and well shot peek into the story of the artist known as Bessie Smith. Latifah drops all her royal hip-hop regalia as she channels the soul and pain of Smith, just like you’d imagine if you were reading this as a biographical book about the “Empress.” Director Rees takes a warm, understanding and nuanced look into the psyche of Bessie Smith, delving tastefully into such topics as bisexuality, abuse and feminism with ease.
It feels less like a period piece and more a story of how Black women back then (and still) were strong. Not just strong physically, but emotionally and mentally. Not only that, it gives a refreshing view of a Black woman who was a businesswoman as well, as personalities like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey employed their own and ran successful, independent music businesses in a time where race wholly mattered to the bottom line. It’s a glimpse of Black women that hasn’t been seen widely, especially for a period such as the one that this is set in — the 1920s.
The movie itself is definitely worth checking out and supporting. Not because it’s about “us” or because “we should support Black cinema,” but because it’s done well, features a stellar cast (all of whom supported Queen Latifah in amazing ways themselves), and the story is an important piece of Black/African-American history.
Blues and many of its progenitors is dying. With the recent passing of blues legend B.B. King, one truly realizes how vital a movie like Bessie is. Cultural appropriation has racked the Black music industry for awhile, with many of our songs, stories and dances being taken from us and then profited off of without any remuneration to us. Bessie is a chance to support solid cinema, which just happens to be made by and features Black people. That is why you should check out this movie, and do yourself the favor of learning who people like Bessie Smith were.
Bessie is available on HBO now.