We’ve Read It! Thoughts on Dee Rees’ Script for ‘Bessie’ (Premieres May 16 on HBO)

We've Read It! Thoughts on Dee Rees' Script for 'Bessie' (Premieres May 16 on HBO)

Note: As we near the premiere date for Dee Rees’ much-anticipated Bessie Smith biopic starring Queen Latifah, here are our thoughts on an early version of the script, formerly titled "Blue Goose Hollow." "Bessie" premieres on HBO this Saturday, May 16. 

On the heels of news that
actresses Mo’Nique and Khandi Alexander have joined Queen Latifah in the cast of HBO Films’ Bessie Smith biopic Blue Goose Hollow, I had a chance to
read the screenplay for the film, a February 2014 draft.

Penned by Dee Rees, who will also direct the film, the script follows the turbulent
life of the esteemed blues singer from her early years performing with blues
legend Ma Rainey to her rise to earn
the title of "Empress of the Blues," to the career comeback shortly before her

Anyone who read Rees’ 2010 script for Pariah
knows that there’s an evident richness to her writing. But even more so than
that film, this script observes details in a way that suggests that visually,
this is going to be more than the average period piece. The script handily
takes in all the sumptuous details of the minstrel shows where Bessie starts out
performing, following her through greater fame, wealth, and the vaudeville circuit
in the 1920s, through the tailspin of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Without
giving away spoilers, I’ll say that the eclectic style of the artists, combined
with the amounts of money they pull in at times, allow for stunning imagery.

Thematically, it’s a script that, although set in the
past, deals with the very relevant topics of celebrity and the tangential
nature of success. The story plays out as a wild ride led by Bessie’s bubbling
personality, free-wheeling style, and her push to steer her own life and career.
Her character is portrayed as brash, feisty and unafraid to fight, which makes
her an electric performer but wreaks havoc in her personal life. The character
is subversive in her 1920s/1930s world, but definitely speaks to a modern audience. 

Going hand in hand with Bessie’s brand of early
feminism is the theme of sexuality. This isn’t a script that subtly hints at
secret behaviors behind closed doors. It fleshes out the bisexual relationships and
cross-dressing that both Bessie and Ma Rainey were known for, particularly as
women of size and unconventional beauty. While the sex isn’t gratuitous, it’s
risque enough, along with the violence in the script, to make sense for a network like HBO.

It’s rumored that Queen Latifah has wanted to play
the role of Bessie Smith for years, but you could argue that the best time for
a story like this to be told is now, as discussions on feminism, body image and
gender roles reach a fever pitch in mainstream media. All of the above could
make good fodder for discussion when the film is released.

The plot is framed largely around the relationships
in Bessie’s life – with Rainey, who helps her gain confidence in both her
singing and her sexuality as a young performer; with her husband Jack Gee, who insists on inserting
himself deeper into her career; and later with Richard Morgan, a bootlegger who tries to win her heart. Besides Bessie
herself, Ma Rainey (to be played by Mo’Nique), Jack Gee (yet to be cast) and Bessie’s
older sister Viola (to be played by
Alexander) are the meatiest roles in the script, the characters credited most
with influencing Bessie’s life. There’s also her older brother Clarence, a gentle and supportive
character that performs with her throughout most of her career, and her
longtime lover Lucille, who has a
peripheral role and seems to be a fictional combination of a few real-life

As with any good biopic, there are also a few
well-known artists and historical figures that turn up in the script as Bessie’s
shows and recordings take her from the minstrel circuit to the Harlem
Renaissance, though I’ll leave you to guess who those might be.

The dialogue is sharp, dominated by a Deep South
dialect that the cast will have to master in order to keep us connected with
the film.

Tonally, the script is drama punctuated by the liveliness of Bessie’s persona, which especially resonates on stage. There are
nearly twenty songs performed in the script and a lot will depend on Queen
Latifah’s ability to woo an audience through the music and also carry off Bessie’s
complicated character with charm and believability. Again, this is a
provocative character, with some of her exploits reaching near tall-tale
status, and it could get unwieldy in the wrong hands.

It will definitely be one of the more challenging
roles we’ve seen Latifah play. Considering all the performance scenes, her background
as a recording artist as well as her part in Chicago (for which she
earned Oscar, Gold Globe and BAFTA nominations) come to mind as evidence that
she can give off the kind of saucy stage presence that the script
suggests. To that point, Mo’Nique also has a few singing scenes
in the script as Ma Rainey, which to my knowledge is a first for the actress.

It’s worth mentioning that the real-life Bessie Smith
was dark-skinned and her complexion was an issue in both her career and in
Rees’ script. So it’ll be interesting to see how that’s handled with the caramel-toned
Latifah, and whether there will be any backlash similar to the stir over Zoe Saldana’s casting in the Nina Simone biopic, though I haven’t seen
any as yet.

Overall, it’s a strong script that can make for an entertaining
and compelling narrative. A lot will depend on the strength of the cast to pull
off all the elements that Dee Rees has set forth on the page. As always, we’ll
keep you posted as more news about the project surfaces.

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Michael Cala

Anyone who knows the lives of Bessie and her circle, including Ma Rainey, would know that this is a poorly casted, factually incorrect pack of lies. Read Albertson’s thoroughly researched "Bessie" — where he presents interviews with Jack Gee’s niece and other intimates, or Derrick Stokes’s 1974 "Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers" for a dose of two of reality. Bessie and Rainey were betrayed by this facile, error-ridden screenplay and movie.

Chris Albertson

Saw it, hated it. I thought they had learned their lesson; this is how bad, ill-researched and distorted biopix used to be. A sad desecration of an extraordinary artist’s image. Yes, you’ll find my name listed in the credits… having read Dee Reese’s next to last draft, I tried my best to point out its multiple flaws, but they didn’t listen.

Steve May

Chris Albertson, your first and last sentence hit the nail on the head. The celebration of mediocrity on this site promotes a strong disconnect between "aspiration" and "achievement", creating an unrealistic mindset set on "stardom" (that is particularly damaging for African-Americans still within the nascent stages of their career.) Wishing Dee Rees the best but the struggle continues.

Chris Albertson

Either you read a script very different from the one they sent me or you have some personal interest in seeing this project succeed, or you are as clueless as the film’s writer/director when it comes to Bessie Smith’s life and persona. Judging by your article, you seem to have a stereotyped impression of the era in which Bessie rose to stardom, and fail to grasp the fact that Bessie’s performing talent, although extraordinary, was not what made her such a remarkable woman. You have to view her in the proper perspective and consider the societal obstacles she was up against. The fact that she not only survived, but managed to rise from the extreme poverty of the Blue Goose Hollow area to become America’s highest paid black entertainer is a measure of her strength. That she continues to be greatly admired throughout the world 77 years after her death makes the shallow script I read all the more tragic, all the more an insult.

That said, and since Nina Simone’s name has bee brought up here, I can inform Angel and Barbara that Nina contacted me many years ago to tell me that she wanted to portray Bessie in the film (there has been talk of a film for the past 40 years), so did Aretha and a number of other women whose names might be familiar to you. I told Nina that she would be wrong for the part. At that time, Odetta was my personal choice. Nina was not pleased. I should add that Queen Latifah has been my choice for several years—I think she could do a terrific job, but not with that script, which totally misses its mark.


I think Mo'Nique would be better suited to play Bessie Smith both in look and attitude. I think Latifah would be great as Mahalia Jackson but also Zora Neal Hurston who she shares a striking resemblance to.

Sherrine Neely

I honestly don't think there should be any backlash about Latifah, with lighter color skin tone, playing Bessie who was a bit darker. She has the right persona and talent to portray Bessie convincingly. I remember that Diana Ross (skinny, large eyed, dark skinned) played Billie Holliday and looked nothing like her. But I must say, India Arie would have been a better choice for Nina Simone than Zoe Saldana, looks and voice considered :-)

Queen Latifah's going to be great!


I completely agree with you Curious1! Lance Reddick would be FANTASTIC in that role! He is an amazing actor who would really bring life to Jack Gee!!


I agree that this is a wonderful, challenging role for Queen Latifah which she's worked for and deserves. She has the voice. And since Chicago was twelve years ago, I'm sure she's honed her talents further. Since she's worked so hard to develop similar projects on her own, I'm thinking she won't half-step her way to representing a legend on screen. I'm thinking we'll all be surprised and impressed the way Halle Berry surprised and impressed with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

As, for Monique, it will be wonderful to see her back onscreen in a complex role. She's making really interesting, really careful choices in projects and I'm thinking there's a method here.

Finally, I'm looking forward to Dee Rees rocking that resume! Go Dee!


Sounds intriguing. I think it will be Latifah's single most challenging role and I'm not entirely sure she has the skills. Her role in Chicago was deeply overrated. On a side note, it'll be an interesting contrast between Latifah as Smith and the real Latifah and her straight, blondish hair making the talk show rounds.


Wow! This seems so exciting to have a biopic finally made of Bessie. I think Mo'nique would do her justice. So would Queen Latifa; but Queen Latifa should play Mahalia Jackson. She even looks like Mahalia–color aside. Color would not matter for either actress. Either would do.

I get sick every time Zoe Saladna is mentioned as Nina Simone–in blackface, with no cultural identity to Nina.


I highly doubt there will be backlash if Queen Latifah play Bessie Smith vs Zoe playing Nina Simon. If you look at the women lives and what they stood for it would be no doubt that Nina would NOT approve of Zoe, a Latina identified woman regardless if there are plenty of worthy black actresses who can play her. Nina is known for being revolutionary, pro-black and an activist all tied into her music. She was a classical pianist that could not make a career to say the least because of the color of her skin. Her position and lifetime protest was about the good of Black people. Bessie Smith is known for her music and the illusion of gender orientation. Color-ism plays a very small part in who plays Bessie. It is all about being a free spirit and at least a woman of color excluding white-looking passing people. The Bessie story could not be told if a non person of color played her because of the times she lived in where race plays a factor in her limited ability to perform everywhere. Therefore, allowing a non-person of color to play her would not work. The acting ability is not a question. Both women are talented. However, if you want to honor the women legacy and what they stood for a dark skinned black woman would play Nina and a woman of color who is gay-friendly would play Bessie. It would be a bonus if you actually get someone who is an gay activist to play Bessie. I'm sure she would be very pleased.


Jack Gee should be played by Lance Reddick. After seeing him roll in American Horror Story he is perfect.

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