In HBO's 'Bessie,' Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues It took Queen Latifah more than 20 years to bring the life of pioneering blues singer Bessie Smith to the screen. "Inhabiting her has inhabited me," she says.
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In HBO's 'Bessie,' Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues

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In HBO's 'Bessie,' Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues

In HBO's 'Bessie,' Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Gee, but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you.

RATH: A car accident in 1937 cut short the life of Bessie Smith. She was 43 years old. But she'd already established her legacy as the Empress of the Blues and a pioneering performer who demanded respect and equal pay in a world dominated by men and controlled by whites. She'd also achieved a good deal of infamy for her boozing, her brawling and her sexual appetites.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith, singing) The next man I get has got to promise me to be mine, all mine.

RATH: That's Queen Latifah, playing the title role in HBO's "Bessie," which premieres tonight. She's been working for more than 20 years to bring Bessie Smith's life to the screen and finally pulled it together with writer-director Dee Rees. I spoke with both of them, and I asked what excited Queen Latifah when she was training to sing like Bessie Smith.

LATIFAH: When you listen to the small inflections, her vibratos, the way she said certain words, like, even if it's just saying here - or here, here. I mean, I'm still working on how to say it the way she said it. But she had this, like, crazy vibrato that was just so different than anyone I had ever heard. And then the way she would just get really grindy, like - grrrr - like that's the only way you could kind of write it. She just says it with a grrrr.


LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith, singing) I was with you, baby, when you didn't have a dime. Now since you've got plenty of money, you have thrown your good gal down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Reporter A.R. Knight) This is a A.R. Knight (ph) from The Chicago Defender, and I'm here to tell you that Bessie Smith is the locomotive that shot out of Tennessee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Reporter W. Alexander) This is W. Alexander...

RATH: And is it true that you have been basically in talks or considering playing Bessie Smith for over 20 years?

LATIFAH: Yeah. This project came pretty early in my career as an actress. I was basically Queen Latifah the hip-hop head (laughter) Queen Latifah the rapper-turned-actress. It would've been kind of a life-changing, career-defining moment in my acting career at that time. But I would've had half the life experience that I could've brought to this project. And so it's just funny how life works. I'm so thankful that this happened at this time, with this life experience.

RATH: And, Dee - and you see this very early on in the film, how obviously she came from a very, very modest background. But very early on, she demanded - and got - fair payment.

DEE REES: Absolutely, yeah. You know, like, especially in a time where, you know, the terms were exploitive. You know, kind of like no matter what you did, whether you were washing clothes or cleaning somebody's house or doing music, the terms were exploitive. So in that time, she was able to kind of demand what she was worth and able to organize herself in such a way that she'd be able to sing what she wants to sing, like, go on tour, build her own audience.


JOSEPH KNEZEVICH: (As Frank Walker) Ms. Smith, I'd like to record you for Columbia Records for our new race records division.

LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith) What is a race record, the one where they put a coon on the front?

KNEZEVICH: (As Frank Walker) Well - no, no, Ma'am. We at Columbia are taking a different approach.

LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith) I'm not interested in your race records. And I'm not interested in wasting my time singing no Stovall blues.

KNEZEVICH: (As Frank Walker) But we want your sound. We want the Bessie Smith sound. And it would be your face on the ad, nothing like those other...

LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith) I already sell out every show from Philly to Chicago. Ain't nobody doing it like I'm doing it.

KNEZEVICH: (As Frank Walker) You'd attract a broader audience.

LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith) I've been doing just fine without them.

KNEZEVICH: (As Frank Walker) I can offer you $50 a side - no royalties, of course.

LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith, laughing).

RATH: And Queen Latifah, I don't want to be too simple in drawing parallels, but I couldn't help but think about how, you know, you made it in a very male-dominated world of hip-hop when you were pretty young.

LATIFAH: Yeah, male-dominated world, how to stick up for yourself, how to be respected. She did those things, and she bounced between those worlds. Probably the only - the most foreign thing was just how - how she kind of bit the hand that fed her. I don't think I've really bitten the hand that has fed me too much. Maybe I have, but it hasn't been pointed out to me in that way. My life is not Bessie Smith's life. Let's be clear about that. I am not Bessie Smith.

REES: You've never knocked nobody down? Come on (laughter).

LATIFAH: Oh, I definitely knocked several people down in my life.


LATIFAH: And I'll knock them down again. But, you know, I've been knocked down, too. And, you know, you've got to get comfortable fighting from the ground up sometimes. But I know that, too.

RATH: You know, something that a lot of people obviously pay attention to because, you know, people are people. They talk about Bessie Smith's sexuality. And it's here in the film, Bessie Smith's bisexuality. But it's not there as a point of controversy. It's just a fact of her life. Was she really that open about her sexuality? I'm curious how she was able to get away with it at a time like that?

REES: I wanted to present her sexuality in a very, like, matter-of-fact light. You know, it's not scandalized. It's like, she loves who she loves. You know, if you look through her song lyrics, like, she has lyrics that refer to homosexuality. If you look at Ma Rainey, she has lyrics about gay people. Then you had, in the '20s, people like Gladys Bentley performing in a suit and tails, you know, on stage in Harlem. You had Moms Mably, who was known off stage as Pops Mably. So all these women just, you know, were who they were. And whether they were insulated by their occupation, by their wealth, maybe - but even despite that, like, they were seeing this in their lives because it shows up in their lyrics.

RATH: Queen Latifah, when you actually are singing her songs, what is it like to - you know, to inhabit that as a singer, to be Bessie Smith?

LATIFAH: Well, I can tell you inhabiting her has inhabited me. It's - it's left its mark on me. I can never be Bessie Smith as a singer. She's just otherworldly. But she's the type of singer who leaves a stamp on you. So now when I'm recording new songs - new jazz songs, new hip-hop songs, new alternative - whatever I'm feeling, I'm always looking to bring a little bit of her with me to these songs. Keep playing things differently. Say words that shouldn't be said. Do things that shouldn't be done. Go against the grain. If it weren't me and I was listening to that through someone else, that's what I would want to hear.

RATH: That's actor and producer and musician, of course, Queen Latifah, also known as Dana Owens and writer-director Dee Rees...

LATIFAH: (Beat-boxing).

RATH: Yeah.

LATIFAH: Sorry, I had to bring a little hip-hop to NPR. I'm doing...

REES: That's outro...

LATIFAH: This is a music bed - go ahead (beat-boxing).

RATH: And writer-director Dee Rees. Their film "Bessie" is about the life of singer Bessie Smith, and it debuts tonight on HBO.


RATH: Queen Latifah, Dee Rees, thank you so much.

LATIFAH: Oh, thank you so much.

REES: Thanks for having us.

LATIFAH: What a great pleasure.


LATIFAH: (As Bessie Smith, singing) Down in Atlanta, GA...

RATH: This is NPR News.

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