Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated Queen Latifah is playing the role of iconic blues singer Bessie Smith in a new tv movie bio-pic ‘Bessie’ for American channel HBO.
Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated Queen Latifah is playing the role of iconic blues singer Bessie Smith in a new bio-pic ‘Bessie’ for HBO.
The film portrays Smith's beginnings, her rise to prominence during the golden era of jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as her personal life.
Bessie Smith recorded and worked with many jazz greats including Louis Armstrong Fletcher Henderson and Coleman Hawkins. She came from an impoverished family background, taking to busking on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee before her ascent into popularity as blues singer. She became a huge star after recording with Columbia Records and cut over 160 songs with the label. Her career ended during the Great Depression and she died in 1937 aged 43.
Actor Michael K. Williams plays Smith’s husband, Richard Morgan who was vibes man Lionel Hampton’s uncle, and Mo’Nique plays blues legend Ma Rainey with whom Bessie danced and eventually sang.
Latifah recently revealed she was offered the role 22 years ago in the peak of her rap career. “I had no idea who Bessie Smith was, to be honest with you. I had to become familiar with who she was in particular,” she said. “I was just blown away. I could hear her voice in so many people who came after her. If there was a Bessie Smith alive today, she'd blow everyone else out of the water. I could never match her true ability.”
Bessie Smith was also bisexual and the film deals with this. Latifah adds, “'Bessie never walks around things. She just walks right through it.”
Smith remains hugely influential to young jazz singers like Grammy-nominated Cecile McLorin Salvant who has studied her entire body of work and reinterpreted some of her songs.