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We've Read It! Thoughts on Dee Rees' Script for Bessie Smith Biopic 'Blue Goose Hollow'

by Jai Tiggett
May 26, 2014 12:54 PM
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On the heels of news that actresses Mo'Nique and Khandi Alexander have joined Queen Latifah in the cast of HBO Films' Bessie Smith biopic Blue Goose Hollow, I had a chance to read the screenplay for the film, a February 2014 draft.

Penned by Dee Rees, who will also direct the film, the script follows the turbulent life of the esteemed blues singer from her early years performing with blues legend Ma Rainey to her rise to earn the title of "Empress of the Blues," to the career comeback shortly before her death.

Anyone who read Rees' 2010 script for Pariah knows that there's an evident richness to her writing. But even more so than that film, this script observes details in a way that suggests that visually, this is going to be more than the average period piece. The script handily takes in all the sumptuous details of the minstrel shows where Bessie starts out performing, following her through greater fame, wealth, and the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, through the tailspin of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Without giving away spoilers, I'll say that the eclectic style of the artists, combined with the amounts of money they pull in at times, allow for stunning imagery.

Thematically, it's a script that, although set in the past, deals with the very relevant topics of celebrity and the tangential nature of success. The story plays out as a wild ride led by Bessie's bubbling personality, free-wheeling style, and her push to steer her own life and career. Her character is portrayed as brash, feisty and unafraid to fight, which makes her an electric performer but wreaks havoc in her personal life. The character is subversive in her 1920s/1930s world, but definitely speaks to a modern audience. 

Going hand in hand with Bessie's brand of early feminism is the theme of sexuality. This isn't a script that subtly hints at secret behaviors behind closed doors. It fleshes out the bisexual relationships and cross-dressing that both Bessie and Ma Rainey were known for, particularly as women of size and unconventional beauty. While the sex isn't gratuitous, it's risque enough, along with the violence in the script, to make sense for a network like HBO.

It's rumored that Queen Latifah has wanted to play the role of Bessie Smith for years, but you could argue that the best time for a story like this to be told is now, as discussions on feminism, body image and gender roles reach a fever pitch in mainstream media. All of the above could make good fodder for discussion when the film is released.

The plot is framed largely around the relationships in Bessie's life - with Rainey, who helps her gain confidence in both her singing and her sexuality as a young performer; with her husband Jack Gee, who insists on inserting himself deeper into her career; and later with Richard Morgan, a bootlegger who tries to win her heart. Besides Bessie herself, Ma Rainey (to be played by Mo'Nique), Jack Gee (yet to be cast) and Bessie's older sister Viola (to be played by Alexander) are the meatiest roles in the script, the characters credited most with influencing Bessie's life. There's also her older brother Clarence, a gentle and supportive character that performs with her throughout most of her career, and her longtime lover Lucille, who has a peripheral role and seems to be a fictional combination of a few real-life characters.

As with any good biopic, there are also a few well-known artists and historical figures that turn up in the script as Bessie's shows and recordings take her from the minstrel circuit to the Harlem Renaissance, though I'll leave you to guess who those might be.

The dialogue is sharp, dominated by a Deep South dialect that the cast will have to master in order to keep us connected with the film.

Tonally, the script is drama punctuated by the liveliness of Bessie's persona, which especially resonates on stage. There are nearly twenty songs performed in the script and a lot will depend on Queen Latifah's ability to woo an audience through the music and also carry off Bessie's complicated character with charm and believability. Again, this is a provocative character, with some of her exploits reaching near tall-tale status, and it could get unwieldy in the wrong hands.

It will definitely be one of the more challenging roles we've seen Latifah play. Considering all the performance scenes, her background as a recording artist as well as her part in Chicago (for which she earned Oscar, Gold Globe and BAFTA nominations) come to mind as evidence that she can give off the kind of saucy stage presence that the script suggests. To that point, Mo'Nique also has a few singing scenes in the script as Ma Rainey, which to my knowledge is a first for the actress.

It's worth mentioning that the real-life Bessie Smith was dark-skinned and her complexion was an issue in both her career and in Rees' script. So it'll be interesting to see how that's handled with the caramel-toned Latifah, and whether there will be any backlash similar to the stir over Zoe Saldana's casting in the Nina Simone biopic, though I haven't seen any as yet.

Overall, it's a strong script that can make for an entertaining and compelling narrative. A lot will depend on the strength of the cast to pull off all the elements that Dee Rees has set forth on the page. As always, we'll keep you posted as more news about the project surfaces.

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  • Shalove2 | August 5, 2014 7:05 PMReply

    I think Mo'Nique would be better suited to play Bessie Smith both in look and attitude. I think Latifah would be great as Mahalia Jackson but also Zora Neal Hurston who she shares a striking resemblance to.

  • Sherrine Neely | June 24, 2014 9:16 AMReply

    I honestly don't think there should be any backlash about Latifah, with lighter color skin tone, playing Bessie who was a bit darker. She has the right persona and talent to portray Bessie convincingly. I remember that Diana Ross (skinny, large eyed, dark skinned) played Billie Holliday and looked nothing like her. But I must say, India Arie would have been a better choice for Nina Simone than Zoe Saldana, looks and voice considered :-)

    Queen Latifah's going to be great!

  • Shadowgirl | May 30, 2014 3:35 PMReply

    I completely agree with you Curious1! Lance Reddick would be FANTASTIC in that role! He is an amazing actor who would really bring life to Jack Gee!!

  • Donella | May 27, 2014 3:14 PMReply

    I agree that this is a wonderful, challenging role for Queen Latifah which she's worked for and deserves. She has the voice. And since Chicago was twelve years ago, I'm sure she's honed her talents further. Since she's worked so hard to develop similar projects on her own, I'm thinking she won't half-step her way to representing a legend on screen. I'm thinking we'll all be surprised and impressed the way Halle Berry surprised and impressed with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

    As, for Monique, it will be wonderful to see her back onscreen in a complex role. She's making really interesting, really careful choices in projects and I'm thinking there's a method here.

    Finally, I'm looking forward to Dee Rees rocking that resume! Go Dee!

  • Marie | May 27, 2014 12:08 PMReply

    Sounds intriguing. I think it will be Latifah's single most challenging role and I'm not entirely sure she has the skills. Her role in Chicago was deeply overrated. On a side note, it'll be an interesting contrast between Latifah as Smith and the real Latifah and her straight, blondish hair making the talk show rounds.

  • Barbara | May 26, 2014 4:57 PMReply

    Wow! This seems so exciting to have a biopic finally made of Bessie. I think Mo'nique would do her justice. So would Queen Latifa; but Queen Latifa should play Mahalia Jackson. She even looks like Mahalia--color aside. Color would not matter for either actress. Either would do.

    I get sick every time Zoe Saladna is mentioned as Nina Simone--in blackface, with no cultural identity to Nina.

  • Angel | May 26, 2014 4:17 PMReply

    I highly doubt there will be backlash if Queen Latifah play Bessie Smith vs Zoe playing Nina Simon. If you look at the women lives and what they stood for it would be no doubt that Nina would NOT approve of Zoe, a Latina identified woman regardless if there are plenty of worthy black actresses who can play her. Nina is known for being revolutionary, pro-black and an activist all tied into her music. She was a classical pianist that could not make a career to say the least because of the color of her skin. Her position and lifetime protest was about the good of Black people. Bessie Smith is known for her music and the illusion of gender orientation. Color-ism plays a very small part in who plays Bessie. It is all about being a free spirit and at least a woman of color excluding white-looking passing people. The Bessie story could not be told if a non person of color played her because of the times she lived in where race plays a factor in her limited ability to perform everywhere. Therefore, allowing a non-person of color to play her would not work. The acting ability is not a question. Both women are talented. However, if you want to honor the women legacy and what they stood for a dark skinned black woman would play Nina and a woman of color who is gay-friendly would play Bessie. It would be a bonus if you actually get someone who is an gay activist to play Bessie. I'm sure she would be very pleased.

  • Boomslang | May 26, 2014 6:46 PM

    There won't be because Dana Owens has the same set of African features as either Mahalia and Bessie . A much similar body type also. And she is an actor and singer . Zoe is the equivalent of an Ambercromby and fitch in the acting world much in the same way Blake Lively is.

    But I love how most black people in S and A focus on pigmentation but when it comes to define features of black people as African.People act as if it is the N word . Call it what it is.Chickens.

  • curious1 | May 26, 2014 4:02 PMReply

    Jack Gee should be played by Lance Reddick. After seeing him roll in American Horror Story he is perfect.

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