Bessie (film)

Bessie is an HBO TV film about the American blues singer Bessie Smith, and focuses on her transformation as a struggling young singer into "The Empress of the Blues". The film is directed by Dee Rees, with a screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Queen Latifah stars as Smith, and supporting roles are played by Michael Kenneth Williams as Smith's first husband Jack Gee, and Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey. The film premiered on May 16, 2015.[1]

Promotional poster
Screenplay by
Story by
Directed byDee Rees
Theme music composerRachel Portman
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
Executive producer(s)
Producer(s)Ron Schmidt
CinematographyJeff Jur
Editor(s)Brian A. Kates
Running time115 minutes
Production company(s)Flavor Unit Entertainment
The Zanuck Company
DistributorHBO Films
Original networkHBO
Original release
  • May 16, 2015 (2015-05-16)
External links

By the following year Bessie stood as the most watched HBO original film of all time. The film was well received critically and garnered four Primetime Emmy Awards, winning for Outstanding Television Movie.


Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is a young singer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her siblings are orphaned when their parents, William and Laura, die, leaving their oldest sister, Viola (Khandi Alexander), to raise them. Viola is stern and Bessie's childhood is unhappy. She along with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) scrape by working for local vaudeville shows. Her stage ambitions are frustrated by producers unwilling to feature dark-skinned black women in their shows. Bessie sneaks onto traveling performer Ma Rainey's (Mo'Nique) train compartment and asks to join her show. Ma Rainey takes Bessie under her wing and helps her develop her abilities until Bessie's popularity causes a schism between the two women. Bessie leaves with Clarence to start her own show.

In addition to her lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Bessie begins a tumultuous relationship with Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams), a security guard who later becomes her husband and manager. After a humiliating rejection from the newly formed Black Swan Records, Jack manages to get Bessie a record deal with Columbia Records. Immense success follows, though Bessie encounters difficulties, including a stabbing attack after a show in her hometown, racism from white guests during an affluent party, and an attack during her show by the Ku Klux Klan, whom she courageously chases off. Eventually, Bessie reconciles with Viola, and moves her and all of her siblings into a mansion to live with her. The move causes additional tension with Jack, and Bessie pushes him further by adopting a young boy, whom she names Jack Jr., as their son. Eventually, Lucille leaves Bessie in order to have her own life. Despite her own affair with bootlegger Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), Bessie is infuriated upon discovering that Jack is bankrolling his mistress, up and coming performer Gertrude Saunders. After a violent quarrel, Jack leaves her. Bessie spirals into depression and alcohol. Jack returns, kidnapping Jack Jr. with the assistance of Viola, and takes him to live with him, contending that Bessie is an unfit mother.

During the Great Depression, Bessie's fortune dissolves, and she and Clarence move into a small apartment. Bessie reconciles with Ma Rainey and takes some time to recuperate from her personal losses. Eventually, she accepts Richard's love for her and the two begin a relationship. After hearing Lucille Bogan's licentious hit song "Til the Cows Come Home", Bessie performs once again and meets a young John Hammond who wishes to produce her comeback tour. Bessie's comeback is a success and she later reflects on her life while discussing the future with Richard.



A first draft screenplay was written by playwright Horton Foote at a time when Columbia Pictures was slated to produce the film, but the project died when the studio became involved in a financial irregularity that threatened its existence. Mr. Foote purchased his screenplay back from Columbia and acquired the film rights from biographer Chris Albertson. In the early 1990s, when the possibility of producers Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck taking over the project arose, Albertson suggested Queen Latifah for the lead, but the project lay dormant when financing could not be found. Upon Horton Foote's death in 2009, the script and film rights became the property of his daughter, actress Hallie Foote, who took it to the Zanucks and HBO.[3] Thus, press releases claim that Bessie has been "22 years in the making." As part of the HBO deal, Queen Latifah is credited as one of the executive producers. The project was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia.[4]

An early article announcing the HBO film indicated it would be based on Bessie, a 1972 biography by Chris Albertson,[5] but a year later the book was not included in the film's credits or promotion, nor did the end result bear but a peripheral resemblance to Albertson's book.


The film received positive reviews from critics, with many critics praising the performances of Queen Latifah, Mo'Nique, and Khandi Alexander, while criticizing the use of the "Hollywood biopic" formula. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 87% based on 15 critic reviews.[6] Metacritic gave the film a score of 75 out of 100 based on 20 critic reviews.[7]

As of 2016, Bessie remained the most watched HBO original movie of all time with 1.34 million viewers and an 18-49 demo rating of 0.4.[8]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Recipients Outcome
2015 Critics' Choice Television Award Best Movie Bessie Won
Best Actress in a Movie or Limited Series Queen Latifah Nominated
Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Limited Series Khandi Alexander Nominated
Mo'Nique Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award[9] Outstanding Television Movie Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone, Randi Michel and Ron Schmidt Won
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie Queen Latifah Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie Michael K. Williams Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie Mo'Nique Nominated
Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special Dee Rees Nominated
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Horton Foote and Dee Rees Nominated
Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special Jackie Burch and Billy Hopkins Nominated
Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie Jeff Jur Won
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie Lawrence Davis, Victor Jones, Iasia Merriweather and Monty Schuth Nominated
Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic) Noel Hernandez, Sian Richards, Debi Young, Mi Young and Ngozi Olandu Young Nominated
Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special Rachel Portman Won
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie Ed Cherney, James Emswiller, Roberto Fernandez, Evyen J. Klean and Damian Volpe Won
Television Critics Association Award Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Bessie Nominated
2016 73rd Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television Queen Latifah Nominated
Satellite Award Best Television Film Bessie Nominated
Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film Queen Latifah Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film Michael K. Williams Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film Mo'Nique Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie Queen Latifah Won
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Television Film Dee Rees Won


  1. "Queen Latifah's Bessie Smith Film to Premiere May 16 on HBO". Billboard. 24 February 2015. Retrieved 12 April 2015.
  2. "How accurate is Bessie?". Slate. May 16, 2015. Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  3. Stempel, Tom (July 15, 2015). "Understanding Screenwriting #130". Creative Screenwriting. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  4. Bibel, Sara (January 8, 2015). "'Bessie' Starring Queen Latifah to Premiere this Spring on HBO". TV by the Numbers. Retrieved May 24, 2015.
  5. "Queen Latifah to Star as Bessie Smith in HBO Biopic". Hollywood Reporter. 1 May 2014. Retrieved 12 April 2015.
  6. "Bessie (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 26, 2015.
  7. "Bessie - Season 1 Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved May 26, 2015.
  8. Patten, Dominic (May 24, 2016). "HBO's 'All The Way' Tops 'Confirmation' In Total Viewers But Not 'Bessie'". Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  9. "Bessie". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
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