HBO has given us our first look at Bessie, the premium channel’s upcoming biopic of Bessie Smith, the legendary Tennessee-born blues singer. Oscar nominee and overall world-conqueror Queen Latifah is playing the renowned “Empress of the Blues,” with Mo’nique co-starring as another classic singer, Ma Rainey, and Charles S. Dutton as William “Pa” Rainey. Pariah helmer Dee Rees, who also co-wrote the story alongside Horton Foote, directed the film and is currently in the middle of post-production.
Rees and Foote’s story focuses specifically on Smith’s rise from busking with her brother in Chattanooga to touring with Ma and Pa Rainey, to being considered one of the greatest American jazz vocalists of all time. It’s unclear how the film will treat Smith’s infamous temper and streak of violence, but if Pariah is any barometer for what Rees has the stomach for, the film will almost certainly be a punch to the gut. Joining Latifah, Mo’nique, and Dutton is Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire) as Jack Gee, Smith’s husband; Khandi Alexander (Treme) as her older sister, Viola; and Mike Epps as Richard, a bootlegger who catches Smith’s eye.
Rees worked with writers Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois — who recently penned Disney’s McFarland, USA — on the screenplay. Ron Schmidt is producing, with Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone, Randi Michel, and Latifah herself in executive producing roles. HBO and Latifah have a history of working well together: the multi-hyphenate nabbed a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her performance in the premium channel’s 2007 drama Life Support.
Bessie is scheduled to be released via the premium channel on Saturday, May 16th.
Check out the first Bessie teaser trailer below: