Oscar nominee Queen Latifah (“Chicago”) stars as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO Films drama “Bessie,” directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dee Rees (“Pariah”) from a screenplay by Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. The film focuses on Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues,” one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and an enduring icon today.
Debuting Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO, “Bessie” is executive produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Latifah, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone and Randi Michel. Ron Schmidt produces. The talented cast includes Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”; “12 Years a Slave”) as Bessie’s husband, Jack; Khandi Alexander (“Scandal,” “CSI: Miami,” HBO’s “Treme”) as Bessie’s older sister, Viola; Mike Epps (“The Hangover,” “Soul Men”) as Richard, a bootlegger and romantic interest; Tory Kittles (HBO’s “True Detective”; “Olympus Has Fallen”) as Bessie’s older brother, Clarence; Tika Sumpter (“Ride Along,” “Sparkle”) as Lucille, a performer and romantic interest; Oliver Platt (“X-Men: First Class,” “Fargo,” “Chef”) as famed photographer and writer Carl Van Vechten; and Bryan Greenberg (“Friends with Benefits,” HBO’s “How to Make It in America”) as renowned record producer and music critic John Hammond; with Charles S. Dutton (“Roc,” “Longmire,” “Alien 3”) as Ma Rainey’s husband, William “Pa” Rainey; andOscar winner Mo’Nique (“Precious”) as blues legend Ma Rainey.
“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 Smith’s professional highs and personal lows, the film paints a portrait of a tenacious spirit who, despite her own demons, became a celebrated legend. Throughout the years, Smith has served as an inspiration for such illustrious singers as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, among others.
A labor of love for the filmmakers, “Bessie” has been 22 years in the making. The first draft was written by celebrated playwright Horton Foote. Latifah was approached by producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck to take on the role of Smith when she was just launching her acting career. She eventually came on board as an executive producer, along with producing partner Compere.
Said Latifah, “I have been excited about this project since the very beginning. When HBO got involved, we were thrilled and we worked together to make something that would capture Bessie’s life honestly and respectfully.”
“Bessie” marks a return to HBO for the star, after her Golden Globe- and SAG Award-winning performance in HBO Films’ “Life Support.”
Rees, who The New York Times selected as “One of the 20 Directors to Watch” and Filmmaker magazine called one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” caught HBO’s attention with the buzz around her award-winning film “Pariah,” a much-talked-about hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Rees brought that same raw and personal perspective to “Bessie.” Her singular sensibility and passion made Rees the perfect choice to direct the film.
“Bessie,” an HBO presentation of A Flavor Unit Entertainment Production and A Zanuck Company Production, was filmed in Atlanta.