Out writer/director Dee Rees on Shaping ‘Bessie’ for HBO Film with Queen Latifah

Dee Rees and Queen Latifah during filming of 'Bessie.' (HBO)

Earlier this week, this LGBT site featured interviews with two actresses from the HBO biopic, “Bessie,” which premieres Saturday on HBO. First up, Khandi Alexander talked playing the sister to Queen Latifah’s Bessie Smith. Then, Tika Sumpter talked the differences in playing a prominent lover in Bessie’s life as well as her character in the wild prime time soap on OWN, “The Haves and the Have Nots.”

But “Bessie” would not exist without Dee Rees, the out writer/director who helmed the project as long as shared co-writing credit (with Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois). Rees, who gained attention for writing/directing the 2011 film, “Pariah,” talked to me recently about how Bessie’s bisexuality was an important part of the film but was not the central the focus as well as what she thinks of our current time when so many film and television projects feature stories of sexuality.

I know the project has been around for a while, and Queen Latifah’s name had been attached to it so when did you kind of come into the picture?

Dee Rees: It was sometime, like, in 2012 to rewrite the script, so I came on and been working on the script for the past two years and I was always writing it with a director’s eye in the hope. It was early last year, so it was kind of the last round, and HBO was like, ‘well, shit, do you want to direct it?’ and I was like, ‘hell, yeah!’ I had just been fixing it and bringing it to life ever since the time that I was working on it, so, yeah.

Biopics are a favorite of mine but what were the challenges in that especially because this film is two hours, as opposed to four?

DR: Yeah, you should have seen the first draft…the first draft was like a four-hour movie. Yeah, the idea was to kind of pick a point in her life and it’s kind of like these are the change points, and so that’s why I’m writing the script. The Ma Rainey character is critical to me.

With Ma Rainey, it gives Bessie someone to listen to. This is a woman who I think doesn't really take feedback from other people but Ma Rainey is a person she would have been able to hear, she would have been mentored by. I built the Ma Rainey character so that we meet [Bessie] at a point where she's not satisfied with just being a performer and being at one theater and kind of making pennies. She really wants to be the star.

In terms of challenges, I really wanted to find Bessie's voice and not how other people talked about Bessie and just go with anecdotes. I really wanted to get behind that. I wanted to go to her song lyrics. I figured the best way to know an artist is through their work. I found the songs that she herself wrote, as opposed to other people writing them for her, to really get to how she spoke, what she was worried about, what she wanted, what she loved. I think that was the biggest thing. I didn't want it to be a cartoonish, brassy, just superficial kind of presentation. I wanted to show that she was actually a very deeply vulnerable woman who, at the end of the day, just wants to love.

I loved that Ma Rainey also kind of gave her license to be who she was sexually, because she sees Ma Rainey with a woman, so she’s kind of, like, well, I guess I can be that and be open about it. Talk about that part of the film.

DR: So Bessie loves Lucy, and the Lucille character was a character I created to show that Bessie was bisexual. We see her and Lucille early on and  it’s kind of behind closed doors, and then when Bessie sees Ma, kind of getting it on like with a chorus girl, she’s, like, ‘oh, my God.’ I think Ma totally showed Bessie another way to be yourself completely, like no matter where you are. It kind of gave her somewhere to go, even though Bessie was clear about her sexuality, Ma kind of lived it, in a different way.

(l-r) Michael Kenneth Williams, Tika Sumpter, Queen Latifah, Alexander, Tory Kittles. (HBO)

If this film was made 15-20 years ago or longer, the sexuality part probably would have been very minimal, or they would have made it a huge plot point. Instead, I like that it just becomes a part of her world.

DR: Yeah, I don’t know what the draft of the script looked like [before coming on board] and I didn’t write this with anybody. Actually, I wrote this on my own. I just knew, just from what I knew of Bessie on my own, like it’s probably why I wanted to tell the story, I wanted to tell the story of this woman from Tennessee who was sexually free [and] geographically free before there was even a label for that.

Then I wanted to make it matter of fact, you know? It's not scandalized, it's not a plot point, I just wanted to present her and all the many facets. It was just a part of who she was, like one part of her identity. She wasn't just a singer, she wasn't a woman who loved women and men but she was a woman who lost her mother so she was all those things at the same time.

I just really wanted to kind of show, through her relationships, how interesting she was and with the Lucille character, we see Lucille represent the nurturing, the softness. Lucille knows that she has these dreams about her mother and wanting to go back to this kind of happier time in her life.

With Jack Gee, she gets the protector, so Jack Gee's able to protect her in a way that Clarence never does. Then Richard, he's the listener. He listens to her. He doesn't ask for commitment or even force Bessie in the same way that Lucille and Jack do. He's ultimately who she kind of falls into.

I just wanted to show she was complicated. Her life onstage wasn't necessarily her life offstage, and I didn't want it to be like a jazz-hands, all music, fan-dancing kind of thing. I really wanted to get behind her eyes and get to the personal, kind of show that what appears very beautiful at a distance is often very painful up close, and music to kind of oscillate between those two perspectives.

Everything you just said, it kind of made me think of the scene later in the movie where she’s at the vanity, and she’s naked, and she takes off her hair, and takes kind of everything off. Why do you think that was important to be in the film?

DR: So that scene was about confronting herself, about taking her armor off. In that scene, the wig comes off, the jewels come off, the makeup comes off and when you’re left with yourself, what do you really have?

She's lost the relationship that means the most to her, Lucille. Things with Jack are on the rocks, her son's already taken. It's just about like inventorying your life, and inventorying how you've lived life. Bessie, in some ways, was complicit in detonating these relationships because she wasn't able to love back or be reciprocal in some ways. I think she is alone, but she's realizing what she's lost. The thing she wanted was a big house with everybody in it and despite who she ends up with or the size of the house, it's an empty house, this house where no one's home. That moment, you know, it starts a downward spiral for her.

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How do you feel about this time and the fact that you’re able to do this work that, you know, the sexuality thing isn’t turning people off?

DR: Yeah, that’s why I’m really proud of Queen Latifah, I’m really proud of Mo’Nique, they didn’t blink. I’m just amazed that I’m getting these amazing actresses who want to play the material because that wasn’t always so. The fact that these actresses can be confident in who they are, come out and really go into these characters is what I’m most probably blown away by. There’s been other projects where I couldn’t get people because they just didn’t want to play a lesbian. I think this like goes to show different range, and different depth, and if you’re an actress, you’re acting, and it’s just a puzzle. Like putting together another personality and people shouldn’t hesitate or balk.

In terms of projects you're working on, yourself, as a writer, director. Is it important to you to always have LGBT-ness to your projects or is it just a byproduct of what kind of excites you?

DR: I think it’s part of what excites me but it’s not a limiting thing. It was like a fairy tale, like a stroke of luck that the next thing I did was this black, queer woman. It’s great. For me, I just want to present humanity in every aspect. I think the more it’s matter of fact, the more it’s out there, I think the more the dialogue just on the national front, or the international front, the social front can progress.

You can't proceed to have a conversation with somebody if you don't see them or don't understand them. For me, all of this has been to bringing a range of characters to the screen and just making things interesting. I'm interested in all types. I'm interested in bi…any story that, to me, is interesting and has kind of like social or political kind of ideas that can be applied.

Part of the reason why I was attracted to this is actually the blues is a form of early social protest. Before there were formal political channels through which people could express their dissent, there was music. These shows became a forum where Bessie is speaking as a narrator, Bessie speaking in the first person, was able to talk about her troubles and allow people to commiserate, to talk about their troubles. She allowed the audience to project onto the narrator of the story, in the way it's naming these issues, like domestic violence, economic inequality, social inequality, by like naming it, she's giving the thing a voice.

“Bessie” airs Saturday at 8pm on HBO.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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