'Bessie' director Dee Rees calls Bessie Smith a ‘radical feminist’

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Queen Latifah shines bright in HBO’s new biopic, Bessie, which captures the unique and brave story of legendary blues songstress Bessie Smith. From her unapologetic approach to stardom to how she expressed her sexuality, Bessie offers insight into a woman who refused to fit into the mold and instead created her own.

TheGrio caught up with the film’s director Dee Rees, who disclosed that Bessie, above all, was a woman who loved to love and thrived from building connections.

“When it came to her relationships, we wanted to show Bessie was a woman who loved many people and loved many people at once,” Rees said. “My take on Bessie is that she didn’t allow herself to love completely but she needed to connect to people.”

The film makes it clear — Bessie refused to be classified as a one-dimensional individual. The opening scene shows Bessie passionately kissing a man in the corner of a smoky backstage area before he forcefully attempts to take things further. But Bessie is intolerant and instead withdraws a blade and slashes him. In doing so, she proves to him — and now to viewers, too — that she is a force to reckon with and that ultimately, she is a woman that doesn’t need saving, because she’s going to save herself.

Bessie’s strength is continuously highlighted throughout the film, which includes a scene of her coming face- to- face with members of the Klu Klux Klan who threaten to shut down her concert — and another where she goes head-to-head with the fiery force of antagonist-turned-mentor Ma Rainey, who is played by Oscar-Award winning actress Mo’Nique. Bessie is ferocious, intimidating and confrontational, but these traits all seem to disappear once she opens her mouth to perform.

Juxtaposed with her hot-tempered character, Dees also focuses on the love stories that blossomed throughout Bessie’s life, revealing a softer, more intimate and often times complicated narrative of a woman who “just wanted to be loved.”

Rees portrays Bessie’s queer identity by introducing Lucille, Bessie’s passionate lover, played by actress Tika Sumpter — but according to Rees, Bessie did not explicitly define her sexuality, because she did not conform to labels.

“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.”

Many of the judgments and thoughts that were formed around the gay community during Bessie’s era still haven’t changed, Rees said, as she noted that there is a misconception that “one-size fits all” when it comes to generalizing the gay community even today.

“I think the biggest obstacles that gay people face is the presumption that everyone thinks that they know you and they know what you’re about and they don’t expect that you can know or think beyond what you have experienced. It’s the exact opposite,” she said.

“There’s a presumption that who you are is all that you area, and there’s not an openness to see the rest of you and what you’re able to contribute.”

But the similarities don’t stop there. Rees also touched on the prejudices and racial tensions that plagued society during Bessie’s time in the 1920’s and the parallels to many of the same struggles that still exist today.

For Rees, these issues have not disappeared — they have simply morphed into a similar breed of social justice issues that have marked yet another moment in the fight for civil rights.

“I just want people to recognize the same things that are happening now have always been going on. This is not new. When you heard the blues back then and today you see the social protests, you understand that both, in their own ways, are creating a consciousness against racial oppression,” Rees said. “Back then, they were organizing against nightriders and the Klan, where today those things have been formalized and changed, but we are still fighting the same forces.”

“It just demonstrates that things are how they always have been in a lot of ways. The names of things have changed and the faces of things have changed, but the racism and the things we are fighting against haven’t necessarily changed.”

Bessie premieres on May 16 at 8PM on HBO.

Follow Imani Ellis on Twitter @imaninaomi .