“I loved the idea of her as this bully-saint,” says director Dee Rees about legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, the subject of the HBO biopic “Bessie,” which premieres May 16. “She’s a bully, she’s a savior, she’s this emancipator, but she’s locked up in her own mind in some ways. I liked all those contradictions.” Watch our complete video chat with Rees below. (Watch our complete video chat below.)
To tap into Smith’s mindset, Rees “started with the songs.” She focused on the music Smith wrote for herself “so I could try to understand, what was she thinking about, what was on her mind … I was creating moments for this woman who maybe doesn’t know how to receive love completely or is afraid to love completely … I really tried to get beneath the anecdote and give her some dimension.”
The filmmaker could also relate to Smith on a personal level, “especially in moments where she’s got the talent but she’s not breaking through in the way she wants to … And this Tennessee black queer woman – I’m a Tennessee black queer woman, so on a personal level I was like, oh yeah, this is me. I relate to this story. I can imagine what that must be like … Bessie isn’t totally understood by the mainstream art establishment, and she isn’t totally understood by the Harlem Renaissance, so she’s not fitting neatly in either space, which was something I identified with, and I really admire that she was able to maintain who she was throughout.”
For Rees, “Bessie” at its core is “about an artist and about work on your own terms … going from independent to studio deal, going from live to recorded, how to let your work be a living thing that connects with people, and I think that’s what Bessie did. It wasn’t just her song, it was everybody’s song.”
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