A lover of music, history and culture, film biographies or the biopic, have long been a favorite of mine. While there are a plethora of stories to be told about people of latter day, I’ve always been fascinated about the journey of people that made their mark on the world before I was born, or made an impression on me early on.
As a novice film buff and filmmaker, I thought “Wouldn’t it be great if Queen Latifah took on the role depicting the life of Bessie Smith or Pearl Bailey,” ever since she began acting and singing. It’s amazing how wishes and dreams really do come true. I never considered being personally involved in said project, although had the opportunity presented itself, I would have relished in taking part. The idea of Dana Owens portraying either and/ or both of these women, simply spoke to me, in lieu of her talent and physical stature. “Bessie” is currently filming in Atlanta, and Latifah has stepped into the shoes of legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith. Written and directed by Dee Rees, it’s scheduled to air on HBO next year. Rees’ first feature film “Pariah,” starred the talented Kim Wayans in her first serious role, and was executive produced by Spike Lee. Latifah is also one of the producers for “Bessie.”
Queen Latifah has displayed phenomenal acting skills and vocal ability as a singer throughout her career. She was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG award for “Best Supporting Actress” for her part as “Mama Thornton” in “Chicago”; and captured on camera singing in the film “Living Out Loud,” which also garnered accolades. BET honored her with a “Best Actress” award for “Chicago.” She’s also released two albums as a singer opposed to a rapper. “The Dana Owens Album” in 2004; and “Trav’lin Light” in 2007, both received Grammy Award nominations for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” and “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album,” respectively.
Bessie Smith rose to fame during the 1920s and ’30s. Her career began as a street performer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1912, she joined Pa and Ma Rainey’s traveling show as a dancer and singer, developing a friendship with Ma Rainey. Rainey was Smith’s mentor before she joined the vaudeville circuit, building a reputation of her own in the south, and along the eastern seaboard. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia records. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was August Wilson’s first play in his ten-play cycle, that chronicled a decade of the American black experience. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the two-act drama told the story of a recording session with the blues legend, her band members, and the white producer and agent that made themselves wealthy ala Rainey’s recordings. Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton acted opposite each other in the stage production. Dutton will also a co-star in “Bessie,” re-visiting his role as “Pa Rainey”, this time opposite Oscar award winning actress Mo’Nique, as “Ma.”
During the 1930s, Bessie’s style began to evolve into that of a Swing musician, when her life tragically ended due to an automobile accident in 1937. She was driving with her companion Richard Morgan — the uncle of Lionel Hampton — in Mississippi, when their car rear-ended a truck. The car rolled over, crushing Smith’s left arm and ribs. Bessie’s arm had been almost completely severed at the elbow. Morgan was not injured. Details as to her actual demise have varied. While some accounts say she bled to death by the time she reached the hospital, partly due to the ambulance taking too long to arrive, it’s said that a more accurate description is that she died the following morning without regaining consciousness after the arm was amputated. Documented reports say that the first people at the scene of the accident, were Memphis surgeon Dr. Hugh Smith and fishing partner Henry Broughton. Years later in the early ’70s, Smith gave his account of what happened to Bessie’s biographer Chris Albertson, which details she passed the morning after.
“Bessie” also stars Michael K. Williams of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”; Khandi Alexander, Oliver Platt, and Mike Epps as “Richard.” Epps has postponed dates for his “After Dark Tour: Comedy for the Grown & Sexy” last night and tonight, to do scenes for the film — he’ll make up those dates on Saturday and Sunday, July 26 & 27.
Sources: Hollywood Reporter; Biogrphy.com