Journalists got a first look at Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith in director Dee Rees’ (pictured) HBO biopic this week, and based on the effusive reaction in the room via Twitter – to the sizzle reel alone – it may very will be the most anticipated telefilm of the spring.
The film follows Smith’s journey from a rough childhood in Philly to becoming a force in both her personal and professional life as a blues singer. It was big shoes to fill for Latifah.
“I would pray, ‘Okay, Bessie, tell me what to do here.’ That hopefully her spirit would sort of come into me,” she told the Television Critics Association in Pasadena. “I felt like it did because there were just certain things that I couldn’t believe that she did.”
From the sizzle reel, Latifah appears to put her foot in this role, holding her own against a dream cast of supporting actors – many of whom are known for stealing scenes – Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s husband Jack, Khandi Alexander as her older sister Viola, Mike Epps as Bessie’s bootlegger and sidepiece Richard, Tika Sumpter as her other sidepiece Lucille and Oscar winner Mo’Nique as Bessie’s mentor and fellow blues legend Ma Rainey.
In describing the portrayal of Bessie’s closeness with Rainey, Latifah said the actress playing the “Mother of the Blues” had to bring a certain gravitas to the role.
“She had to be someone who I could revere a little bit, just person to person,” Latifah explained. “I needed to feel like whoever that [actress] was had power. They could be this tiny, they could be this tall, but they had to have a power and presence to really be able to teach Bessie something, but also teach me something – to remove all the masks, to remove the Queen Latifah, to remove Dana Owens and to really be able to penetrate, spirit to spirit and soul to soul, and really let those people breathe.
Below, Latifah talks about identifying with Bessie Smith on a “pain” level.
“Bessie” will premiere on HBO in the spring.