Dee Rees Q&A: ‘Bessie’ director
"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."
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."