When Dee Rees talks about what went into the writing and directing of “Bessie,” her language starts to shift into the rhythms of the great soul singer’s music. Bessie Smith, the subject of HBO’s highly-anticipated biopic, is played by Queen Latifah, who delves thoroughly into the music, the addictions and the loves that made her a 20th century icon.
Below, Rees — who first broke onto the scene with the 2011 indie darling “Pariah” — tells Indiewire what went into making Queen Latifah feel comfortable during her nude scene, the challenge of diving into Smith’s persona on screen, and why “Bessie” was her first project to reach the screen since “Pariah.”
I want to start with a nitty-gritty detail: How much of the music was performed live, “Les Mis” style?
[Latifah] gave me two live things: There was a live performance in the scene at the party, and she also came to me and asked for a live take during the scene where she’s confronting herself in the mirror. So those were the live takes. There might have been another one in there. We pre-recorded everything for safety, but it’s her singing and she feels it.
Why those specific scenes?
Well, what mattered was the context, you know? And so for the party, the bravery it would have taken to stand in this room of rich white Northerners and to basically sing a song about poverty, you know, it’s a very specific choice. A very brave moment. I wanted the people in the room to hear her voice, like hear it straight out, you know, and to really be moved by it and for her voice to vibrate. For her to summon that bravery it takes to sing in front of a room full of people who aren’t interested in having it. And then for the scene where she’s in the mirror, I really felt like it’s a confrontation of self; there’s almost two people in the room. It’s like you and the person who you think you are, realizing that you’re not that. That kind of slow interrogation, inventory-taking of life, so it was important for her to sing out in that moment.
The scene where she’s singing live to herself in the mirror is such a vulnerable moment in so many respects, in part because she’s naked. Coming in and working with an actor, what was your strategy in terms of building the level of trust necessary for a moment like that?
Because I wrote the script, I had the narrative authority. Coming in with that, like, this is the script that got green-lit, the script that I did, I feel like I knew the characters inside and out and I was confident in that. I just talked to her about why Bessie was naked; it’s like the moment where all armor is off. The wig is off, the costume is off, the makeup is off, this is just you. It’s you confronting yourself and so I explained to her this is about all the armor being off, and Bessie really taking inventory and confronting herself, and she agreed. She’s an artist and she really wanted to go there. Like everything I asked, she told me, “I want to do this.” She’s a great collaborator in that way. She’s not afraid to go there in the relationships, with the violence. She was really game.
You brought up a bit ago the idea of how much her career feels it’s divided into two paths: One is performing for the audiences that really loved her and really wanted to see her, and then it’s her trying to make her way inside the establishment.
Yeah, I think this industry, they didn’t know what they were doing, and a lot of those times she realized that she didn’t really need the record deal. She’s happy performing for people. Bessie was basically unconcerned with the white gaze; she didn’t pull punches and she said what she wanted to say, and so I wanted to show that the blues was about that. It was political, this music. It was coded, and if you didn’t know what they were talking about you would just take the lyrics on the surface. But a lot of it is satire, a lot of it is critique. I wanted to show Bessie almost as a liberator who sang around the countryside, singing for her folks. She’s coming to represent freedom, she’s coming to represent sexual freedom for all these people.
On the commercial side, it’s about sales and it’s also about driving more people to her shows, and how this other audience did appreciate her, but she didn’t tailor her music to that.
In terms of the song choices, I purposely chose songs that she herself wrote and songs that were not her top hits. I really wanted songs that got to the heart of her psyche and really got the emotional issues in her life. So it’s not just picking the song of the year, it’s stuff that you don’t know, stuff that really defines who she was.
It’s a fascinating challenge because it’s not like we’re going to see a ton of Bessie Smith biopics in our lifetimes. Does that come with a certain level of responsibility, like, “Whatever I do, I have to make sure it’s the best representation I can come up with?”
I guess I have this feeling like, “Wow, this is the first Bessie Smith film that’s going to be made, what do you want to say?” And I knew I didn’t want it to be just like a jazz-hands, song-and-dance kind of representation. I wanted it to be a real deep dive into her persona.
My whole idea was that what looks beautiful from afar is very painful up close, and this woman who recounts it and goes oh, she’s a very classy woman— I wanted to show no, she’s actually a very vulnerable, and sometimes lonely, person who is trying to figure out how to love.
There’s like a self declaration of who she is, that starts the film, and then throughout the film we see her contradict that initial manifesto, we see her support that manifesto and be like, “I’ve got what it takes, but it breaks my heart to give it away” — this idea that I’m going to work for what I want. The fact that she is actually a woman, she doesn’t want to give her money to a man, even though she’s doing that. Just the idea that she’s aware of her own power and she’s able to build something for herself. Every song is supposed to show who she is. Even if her life contradicts it, it’s supposed to be a statement of the ideas that she has about life.
That’s so interesting, especially because I feel like the previous trend in biopics featuring women is that you might not necessarily get the deep, nuanced, flawed portrayal that you might get in a biopic about a man. What were the difficulties for you in making sure it was not “Bessie Smith: Great Blues Singer,” it was “Bessie Smith: Complicated Human Being”?
I think the biggest challenge was just getting behind the lyrics. For me the most important moments, the moments that I was most working on were the relationships, and the fact that this was a woman who had to love three people to feel full.
Lucille [played by Tika Sumpter] is a fictional character that I made up to show that Bessie was bisexual. But it’s in Lucille that she gets this softness, she gets seen. Lucille is the one who sees her, who sees that she has these dreams, like the moment between little Bessie and her mother in the sunlight — the moment she’s always trying to get back to. Lucille knows that she’s always reaching for this moment from before her mother died, and that she needs to protect her. And Jack Gee [played by Michael Kenneth Williams], well, she needs a protector. She knows full well that he’s not the right guy. She knows full well he’s exploitive, but it’s showing how a smart woman can go eyes wide open into that situation.
I think what Richard [Mike Epps] gives her is a kind of listening and a kind of respect. He doesn’t force her hand the way that Jack does, doesn’t ask for commitment in the way that Jack still does. He just kind of lets her come to him. And so I just really tried to show through these relationships that she was a complicated person, that someone who seems to have it all actually doesn’t.
For you personally, as a creator, were there specific things about her life that drew you into the story?
Yeah, the fact that she lost her mother at a young age, and then, it’s a small point, but we’re both from Tennessee… Just the idea that she ran away and started her life. To me, what kid does that? I want to know the kid that does that, or the teenager that does that at a time where your only options are pretty much domestic worker or share-cropper or maybe a teacher, at best. Who is the woman who says “Alright, now I’ll do something different.”
My grandmother used to play her records, and there was actually an album called “One Mo’ Time” by Vernel Bagneris that we listened to all the time, we’d be in the den dancing around to that. That kind of got me listening to black vaudeville; the performance of it, the humor of it. It wasn’t just the singing, it was like skits, it was a whole type of performance art and I was interested in that. She’s an artist who said what was true for her, just talking about the present. She talked about economic struggles, she talked about these very honest things.
So of course Indiewire’s been following you since “Pariah” came out, but while you’ve been attached to a lot of projects over the years, is there a particular reason why this was the first one that really came together?
Yeah, I don’t know. I think there’s something in the industry, where you compromise and pass on a lot of things. This is a film that is altogether the film I got to write. There was a cast I was excited about. Creatively, frankly, it was more freeing than other things.
I’m always choosing the hard things, the things that aren’t easy. When you choose the hard things it takes longer than you think to get it done, and if you choose the hard thing and have a very particular way you want to do them and are uncompromising in that, then sometimes it takes even longer. Hopefully this kind of demonstrates what I can do and I’ll get more leeway to build a body of work.
I mean, what are you looking to do next?
Well, currently I’m doing a miniseries for FX [A Shondaland-produced adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 book “The Warmth Of Other Suns”]. I’m also doing another adaptation of another author. So that’s two irons on the fire.
A lot of female directors have been making real headway into directing TV. Is there something specifically about working for television that appeals to you?
Well, it’s more immediate, you know? Stuff gets done and you can let it go. It’s like a short development. And I’ve been wanting to do TV forever. I’m so glad that it’s finally leading that way.
“Bessie” premieres tonight on HBO.