The first photos of Queen Latifah as jazz icon Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie have been release. The new Biopic focuses on Bessie Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into The Empress of the Blues and recounts her career successes, drinking problem and affairs with both men and women.
Queen Latifah film will also stars Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey, and Bryan Greenberg as John Hammond, the Columbia Records rep who signed Smith, as well as Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Oliver Platt and Charles S. Dutton. It’s being directed by queer filmmaker Dee Rees, whose lesbian coming-of- age film, Pariah, earned her critical acclaim in 2012.
Latifah admits she was glad the film took more than two decades to get made.
“When the project came my way, I don’t think I had the life journey that went along with it. I got to live more of the blues.”
Bessie Smith was born in 1894 in Tennessee. Her career began in 1912 when she sang in a show with Ma Rainey. Her first recording, Downhearted Blues, established her as the most successful black vocalist of her time. More than any other performer, she was responsible for introducing the blues to mainstream of American.
She recorded regularly until 1928, touring both the North and the South, and appearing in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was tough on the recording and entertainment industry, and Smith’s career went into a decline. Matters weren’t helped by her increasingly frequent episodes of binge drinking. She made her last recording in 1933. After a three year hiatus in performing, she again began to appear in clubs and shows, but died before another recording session could be arranged. In all, she made over two hundred recordings, including some famous duets with Louis Armstrong.
It was commonly asserted that Ma Rainey introduce Bessie Smith to saphic love, though there is no hard evidence for this. What is known is the Smith frequently got into trouble with her jealous second husband, Jack Gee, over her affairs with women such as Lillian Simpson, a chorus girl in Smith’s touring show, Harlem Frolics. Like Rainey, Smith sang songs with explicit lesbian content such as It’s Dirty But Good from 1930.
Bessie debuts Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.