Buzz Builds for Queen Latifah’s Portrayal of Bessie Smith

HBO movie premiering this weekend also features Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey.

After attending the New York premiere of HBO’s Bessie, Roger Friedman wrote that Queen Latifah as 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith “blows your mind.” Today, AP TV writer Frazier Moore seconds that notion, suggesting that Latifah “schools you with a bruising display of fierce drive, unstoppable talent and a gallery of personal demons.”

In other words, the pay cable movie premiering Saturday May 16 is set to change many people’s perceptions of the Queen, whose two-year syndicated talk show recently came to a quiet end. Here’s some more praise for Latifah, a.k.a. Dana Owens, from The Root editor-at-large Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.:

Owens conveys Smith’s talent, strength and vulnerability in a tour de force performance that solidifies her place among the industry’s best actresses. Owens’ depth as an actress is on full display as she moves thoughtfully and intentionally through the story of Smith’s turbulent life, which was marked by scandal, despair, triumph and courage.

Smith was publicly bisexual at a time when women and men were tortured and jailed for engaging in same-sex relationships. Her unconventional approach to blues singing was reflected in her unconventional relationships with men and women who were intoxicated by her self-determination, yet threatened by her indomitable spirit.

Radar Online, as it has done before, has today posted some paparazzi photos of Latifah in the company of Eboni Nichols. Bessie director Dee Rees, who is openly gay, described Smith’s sexuality this way in a recent interview with The Grio:

“I don’t think Bessie would necessarily consider herself a lesbian because Bessie existed in a time before there were so many labels,” Rees said. “She had relationships with both men and woman, and I wanted to show that she took everything case-by-case, even the people that she loved.”

An openly gay woman herself, Rees continued to reflect on Bessie’s progressive lifestyle. “I think Bessie, in her own way, was a radical feminist before there was a name for it. Bessie wasn’t actively trying to be a feminist, but she just loved who she wanted to love. She wanted the lovers but she also wanted the house and the kid and the picket fence— she wanted to have her cake and eat it too.”