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Dee Rees Will Direct Queen Latifah In Bessie Smith Biopic For HBO

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 30, 2014 at 12:38PM

Dee Rees Will Direct Queen Latifah In Bessie Smith Biopic For HBO
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Bessie Smith

It may not be widely-known that Queen Latifah has been wanting to bring the life story of Bessie Smith (aka the "Empress of the Blues") to the screen for many years now, without much movement on the project. 

Today's news might signal some progress.

Queen Latifah

I've learned that the project is still very much in development, with Dee Rees (Pariah) writing and directing the film, which will of course star Latifah, who has been quite busy lately, in front of and behind the camera, with her own day-time talk show, as well as producing a number of projects for the big and small screens.

HBOThe Zanuck CompanyShelby Stone Productions and Latifah's Flavor Unit Entertainment are all listed as backers of the project, with a mid-June 2014 production start date in Atlanta eyed.

Casting is underway to fill other roles, including that of Ma Rainey, the "Mother Of The Blues."

You might recall our mention on this blog, last October, Rees teasing that she was penning a biopic for HBO, although she was mum on details regarding that project. I can only speculate that this is it, given that HBO is a producer, which might also mean that it'll be made exclusively for the network.

To be titled Blue Goose Hollow (the area in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she was born and raised), the film, will be a biography of Bessie Smith, considered by many to be the greatest blues singer of all time, who was also a successful vaudeville entertainer who became the highest paid African American performer of the roaring twenties.

Spike Lee + Dee Rees photo

The film will reportedly debunk many of the myths that have circulated about her since her untimely death in 1937.

Bessie Smith began her professional career in 1912 by singing in the same show as Ma Rainey, and subsequently performed in various touring minstrel shows and cabarets. By the 1920s, she was a leading artist in black shows. After further tours she was sought out by Clarence Williams to record in New York. Her first recording, Down-Hearted Blues, established her as the most successful black performing artist of her time. She recorded regularly until 1928 with important early jazz instrumentalists such as Williams, James P. Johnson, and various members of Fletcher Henderson's band, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Green, Joe Smith, and Tommy Ladnier

In 1929, she appeared in the film St. Louis Blues. By then, however, alcoholism is said to have ruined her career, as did the Great Depression, which affected the recording and entertainment industries as a whole.

By 1936, Smith was again performing in shows and clubs, but she died, following an automobile accident, before her next recording session had been arranged. 

She made almost 200 recordings, including remarkable duets with Armstrong. She also recorded vigorous versions of jazz standards.

Dee Rees continues to add to her growing slate of projects, which includes a potential film adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Martian Time-Slip (she owns the rights, given to her by Dick's estate, basically for free); She's also working on an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home; And there's the crime thriller Bolo; and her teaming up with Viola Davis for an HBO series.

This article is related to: Dee Rees, Queen Latifah


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