HBO also announced yesterday it would be airing Queen Latifah’s Bessie Smith biopic in 2015. The Bessie Smith project marks the latest small-screen endeavor for Latifah, who is both producing and playing the lead role.
Bessie will be Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dee Rees. Rees was critically acclaimed for her feature film “Pariah,” about a teen who struggles with her sexual identity. It won Best Independent Film from the African-American Film Critics Association and Best Cinematography Award at Sundance 2011, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. The film and Rees also received multiple nominations from the Black Reel Awards and Black Film Critics Circle.
This new film Bessie will focuses on Bessie Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues” and one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s.
Bessie Smith was born in 1894, in Chattanooga, 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.
Smith was famous for her excessive appetites – for home-cooked Southern food, for moonshine, and for the tenderloin districts of the cities she performed in. Bessie Smith died in an automobile accident on September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.