It's been many years since producer Lili Fini Zanuck and her late husband, Richard D. Zanuck, approached Queen Latifah to play blues singer Bessie Smith — so many, in fact, that details of that meeting are sketchy at best.
But more than two decades later, Zanuck says she always knew that Latifah, then a 22-year-old rapper, was the first and only choice for the role.
"I thought she had this incredible strength," Zanuck recalls.
Back in the early 1990s the project was conceived as a feature film, with a script by playwright Horton Foote and director Bruce Beresford (who had previously worked with the Zanucks as the director of the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy).
"So she did the screen test, everybody loved her — and we could not get the picture made."
Part of the resistance had to do with Smith's raucous lifestyle, which didn't fit the stereotype of a sympathetic female lead. Yet Zanuck maintains that was always the appeal of the character for her.
"I think she's very sympathetic," the producer says. "The perception [then] was that the male leads weren't the important leads, and the music was not what anybody was listening to."
But now — following multiple studio attachments, various script drafts and plenty of patience on the part of the principals — Bessie has come to HBO, starring Latifah as the groundbreaking, influential Empress of the Blues. The film will debut May 16, with encore presentations and streaming via HBOGo.
In retrospect, it seems like a long, hard-won battle, but Latifah says the project has always been close to her heart.
"We never disconnected from Bessie," says the actress-singer, who is also an executive producer on the film along with her producing partner, Shakim Compere. (Other executive producers are Richard D. Zanuck [who died in 2012], Lili Fini Zanuck, Shelby Stone and Randi Michel).
"I always appreciated that they thought about me [for this role] at such a young age. The Zanucks saw me as Bessie, and that was it. I saw them as getting their way, so I've been attached to it since then."
The long production delay served Latifah well. In the subsequent years, the former Dana Owens of East Orange, New Jersey, moved far beyond her roots as a teenage street rapper. But based on her early successes, that shouldn't have been a surprise.
After all, by 19 she'd sold more than 1 million copies of her debut album (All Hail the Queen) and by 21 she was running her own record company, Flavor Unit.
Soon she was appearing in movies like Ernest R. Dickerson's Juice and Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. In 1993, at 23, she earned her first Grammy, for the song U.N.I.T.Y., and began starring in the sitcom Living Single, which would run for five seasons on Fox.
Her acting career continued to gain momentum, and she earned her first Oscar nomination for playing Mama Morton in 2002's Chicago. Since then she's starred in and produced multiple film and TV projects, including her own syndicated talk show, The Queen Latifah Show.
But Latifah says she needed the real-world experience of those years to fully embody Smith, who was born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894 and became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day.
Widely popular in the 1920s and '30s, she traveled with her troupe in a custom train car, but died at 43 following a car accident.
By playing the role now — as opposed to all those years ago — Latifah understood that to do justice to Smith she would have to make audiences forget her other accomplishments.
"I know it's hard when people are accustomed to seeing me as Queen Latifah," she observes. "Then we've got to switch those gears and get focused on [Bessie Smith], But there was a point where she took the wheel and I got to sit back and ride. I didn't have to get into character. She was there."
As Smith, Latifah presents a charismatic, combative, self-destructive singer who learns to take charge of her talent through her friend and mentor, blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Mo'Nique, an Oscar winner for her supporting role in Precious).
As racism rages in America, Smith's star nonetheless rises: she entertains all-black audiences on an all-black vaudeville circuit, somewhat insulated from the harsh reality around her.
Ironically, Latifah's own success — and her ability to build on it — played a role in bringing Bessie back to life. After earning an Emmy nomination for portraying an AIDS activist in HBO's 2007 film Life Support, she used the ties she'd forged at the network and pitched Bessie two years later.
"She was very excited about the fact that she may have the ability to get something made," Zanuck recalls. "So we went to HBO. [They] got it and took her on board, and then we went through a series of writers."
Though HBO executives agreed that it was a complex story worth telling, programming president Michael Lombardo says the script still needed some work to better suit the network's programming profile,
"We were searching for the personal journey within — honing in on Bessie as a woman," Lombardo explains. "The script had to have something to say that was more than just a biopic. There was never a doubt in our minds that Queen Latifah could nail it. What we hoped was that the writing would give her a character to really inhabit and dig into."
In 2012 HBO approached Dee Rees, then best known for writing and directing the coming-of-age drama Pariah, which debuted to raves at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Rees grew up listening to Smith's records, thanks to her mother and grandmother, which gave her a personal connection along with a desire to learn more about the blues singer.
"As an African-American woman from the South, she connected with Bessie," Lombardo says.
Two years later, Rees turned in a heavily researched script that delved into Smith's loneliness and rejection, as well as her critical relationship with Ma Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues,
"I knew that we couldn't talk about Bess unless we talked about Ma Rainey," Rees explains, referring to the development of Smith's stage presence and lucrative touring career. "Ma Rainey was really the prototype and Bessie was the production model."
But Smith's career path was not easy.
"It was important to show, in some ways, how Bessie was rejected by the black bourgeoisie as well as the white art establishment," Rees continues. "I really wanted to understand the why, get into what makes her churn. I stumbled upon this sense of loneliness, of not deserving this [success] that she might have harbored, that might have driven her to act out in the way that she acted out."
Rees's script for Bessie infuses the legend with flesh and blood. Smith was known for sexual relationships with both men and women, and she was a heavy drinker, so an evening often ended with fists flying.
Various scenes in the film depict her mercurial nature.
One, at the very beginning, reveals her in an alley with a companion who tries to make the moves on her. When she resists, he punches her in the face. She quickly punches him back, proving that she's not a woman to be trifled with.
Later in the film, she ends up in the hospital after being stabbed during a fight. The script also persuaded execs that Rees was the best choice to direct the project.
"We had met Dee a number of years ago, and we've developed with her before," Lombardo says. "We've wanted to work with her for some time. That she was passionate about this from a storytelling standpoint was an exciting opportunity for us. I had set the bar high for [HBO Films president] Len Amato and his team. It had to unearth the soul of this woman, and I think Dee did that."
"Dee had such a vision of it," Latifah adds. "We thought, 'She sees it and she gets it, so let's make her a part of it. Let's let her tell this story.'"
With the script locked, the pressure was on.
"I had to make a quick decision whether to take this small window that I had in the summer break from the talk show and do it," Latifah says. "So it was like, 'Go on vacation after 180 shows, or do a movie? What are we talking about? Let's do this movie!'"
To accurately play Smith, Latifah listened to her recordings and worked with vocal coach Carmen Twillie, who helped her achieve the raspiness and emotion the blues mistress was known for.
"This is not a musical style that I'm typically into, either singing or listening to on a regular basis," Latifah notes. "It was something I needed some direction on, but I got hooked on it."
She recounts a recent day when, while driving, she turned on the radio. "They were playing some blues. I said, 'I know she's going to come on soon.' I felt like I was right there all over again. I wondered what was going on in the studio that night when they did this song."
Smith appeared in only one film, the 1929 short St. Louis Blues, yet Latifah drew inspiration from that performance.
"She's not the greatest actress, but this one part where she says, 'Please don't leave me,' is heartbreaking That's not a line she had to say — that's her. Through all the punches and kicks and coolness and nice clothes, there's this sadness and vulnerability, That was really what I connected to most, soul to soul."
She says she also loved the loose-fitting fashions of the 1920s, which helped her embrace Smith's carefree personality.
"A summer with no Spanx! It was amazing," she says with a smile, adding that enjoying Southern food in Georgia — where the film was shot — helped. "I gained ten pounds immediately when I started filming this movie. I kind of liked it. I've got a little more swing in the hips."
Though production was on an accelerated schedule, Rees used some of the prep time to dig deep into the performances with her formidable cast, which includes Michael Kenneth Williams as Bessie's husband, Jack; Khandi Alexander as her older sister, Viola; Mike Epps as a bootlegger and romantic interest; Tika Sumpter as longtime girlfriend, Lucille; Tory Kittles as her older brother, Clarence; Oliver Piatt as famed writer Carl Van Vechten; Bryan Greenberg as renowned record producer John Hammond; and Charles S. Dutton as Ma Rainey's husband.
"Rather than traditional rehearsals, I like to do workshops, because if the relationship is there, and both actors understand what the relationship is about, then the words come," Rees explains. "They start to build this shared memory, this shared experience, so when they are on set we have a sense that this is a real relationship."
With period costumes, musical productions and a big established cast, Bessie dwarfed Rees's first feature in scale and scope. Nevertheless, the director says being behind the camera on Bessie was easier in some ways,
"I'm not driving the grip truck, I'm not getting the donuts, I'm not helping the grips unload," she says. "You have more resources, more labor, so everything becomes simpler. That allowed me to focus on performance, blocking and camera angles. It was much more freeing to work on this level. For me, it's all about the performance, no matter the budget."
Still, Rees's indie experience was a benefit when time was tight. "She did a great job of working with so many experienced, successful people in their genres," Latifah says. The two women in fact bonded on set when they discovered that they both have police-officer fathers.
"She's light on her feet," the star says of the writer-director. "She knows how to make it happen, and she knows how to keep it moving and get a lot done. I want to see her do more. I wish I could cut to 10 years from now and just binge-watch Dee."
As for Latifah's performance, Lombardo believes audiences will be surprised by how completely she melds into Smith,
"Everyone knows she can sing," he says. "That she can inhabit a character as complicated and as textured as Bessie Smith is, I think, a revelation. This is a woman who's lived, stumbled and been hurt. It takes a performer of depth that comes with a little age to connect with a character like that."
And despite what Zanuck was told two decades earlier — about Smith being a performer no one had heard of, singing music no one listened to — this project offers much to modern audiences, Lombardo says.
"[It explores] where true art comes from. That pain and heart and soul, the experience in Bessie Smith's voice, isn't just innate talent," he says.
"It comes from the circumstances of her life. There was a commitment to the kind of songs she wanted to do and the voice. She had to sing. This was the way she had to express herself. That's really powerful and contemporary."