Scene in Georgia: Queen Latifah in ‘Bessie’

by Jordan McGuire on June 1, 2015

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If there’s one woman who personifies Bessie Smith it’s Dana Elaine Owens, or as we like to call her, Queen Latifah. The middle aged Latifah has fiery energy, booming vocals, spunk and screen presence. She is the epitome of a renaissance woman. She started her career as a female rapper turned model, then actress, then producer and finally hosted her own television show. She ushered in a new wave of female rappers and sort of blazed the trail for the Missy Elliots, Lil’ Kims and now the Nikki Minajs of the world. She has won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and has been nominated for an Emmy and an Academy Award. She is also born on March 18, a date that we both will share for eternity. So, as Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford would say, “Hip-Hop’s First Lady is my boo.”

Latifah will play Bessie Smith in the upcoming TV movie Bessie from HBO. The Bessie biopic will also star Oscar winner Mo’Nique, the rugged Michael Kenneth Williams, Charles S. Dutton, Khandi Alexander and the long-time comedic vet Mike Epps make up the supporting cast. We know Latifah has the moxie, appearance, soul and the booming vocals to play the iconic jazz singer. The Queen picked up an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Big Mama Morton in Chicago.

In the 1920s and 1930s Bessie Smith was one of the most popular and authoritative voices of the blues and jazz genre. She was nicknamed The Empress of the Blues and led the way with the likes of Louis Armstrong as catalysts for jazz vocalists. The story of Bessie Smith is one of triumph, controversy, influence and tragedy. Spoiler alert, Smith was critically injured in a car accident in late September, 1937. Smith would be taken to the Thomas Afro-American Hospital after apparently being refused admission to a “whites only” hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It will be interesting to see Bessie Smith’s last moments on Earth played out on the screen.

Latifah and Smith’s similarities go much further than their physical appearances. Both icons performed with conviction and struggled with similar obstacles at the start of their music careers. The film is bound to be filled with drama, oppression and will hopefully shed light on a story that is unknown to most.

As mentioned before, Dee Rees will direct from her own script. After the successful HBO TV movie The Normal Heart, HBO is back again with a cast that would very well break the box office. Latifah was seemingly born for the role of Bessie Smith, Mo’Nique will play Ma Rainey, Charles S. Dutton will play Pa Rainey, Michael Kenneth Williams will play Jack Gee and Mike Epps will play a bootlegger named Richard. Starring opposite Queen Latifah is Fargo’s Oliver Platt. Platt will play Carl Van Vechten, the infamous portrait photographer that was a big part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Bessie was shot in Olde Town Conyers, Georgia. The blues film is produced by Ron Schmidt. The film has a U.S. release date of May 16, 2015.

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