It was a night full of joy and reveling for the cast of HBO Films’ biopic “Bessie” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Wednesday. The evening’s red carpet premiere marked the end of the 22-year struggle for Queen Latifah to bring the story of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith to the screen. The project went through a number of studios and was stuck in development limbo until HBO Films came on board.
“This has been such a passionate project of [Queen Latifah’s] because Bessie was an artist who everyone can relate to,” the film’s director Dee Rees told Variety at the premiere. “So many things she experienced in her life resonate today. Bessie’s story is about self-discovery, it’s about love and also about how to love, and it’s about not letting any negative circumstance limit you.”
Cast members Mo’Nique, Bryan Greenberg, Khandi Alexander, Tika Sumpter and Tory Kittles attended the screening and received enthusiastic praise from guests for their performance. The film, airing May 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO, chronicles the turbulent life of Smith (Latifah) and her transformation from a struggling singer to “the Empress of the Blues,” who became one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s. The storyline also focuses on Smith’s relationships with both men and women and features Queen Latifah’s first onscreen nude scene.
“Bessie is taking inventory of her life and in that moment, all the armor comes off. The wig comes off, the makeup comes off and her clothes are off,” explained Rees. “The scene was about being truly honest with yourself and confronting yourself, so it was important for Queen Latifah to be nude.”
Rees said Queen Latifah “was brave” and had a discussion about the importance of the scene.
“Like any artist, she needed to understand why it was there. It’s the most vulnerable that we see Bessie,” she said. “This scene is the turning point and the realization that she’s lost everything she loves the most.”
For Oscar winner Mo’Nique, who plays blues singer Ma Rainey — the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her songs who became an influential mentor and friend to Smith — she was immediately drawn to the strength of the real life women portrayed in the movie.
“The audacity of Bessie Smith not to give up and to keep on going no matter how hard it was and to say to little girls that if I can push through, so can you is so inspiring. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
As for playing Ma Rainey, Mo’Nique had no idea who the “Mother of Blues” was before she read the script, but she was determined to find her “essence.”
“She was in none of my history books in high school or middle school. There is very little information about her,” she said. “But the little bit that I got, I found out she was a woman who was so full of love, apologetic, courageous and she was someone fighting for wage equality even back then. So when you get that dynamic from this woman and you breathe her in, it’s an honor to be able to say, ‘Let me tell you who she was.’ It was an absolute joy to be her.”
Following the screening, Queen Latifah, who did not speak with print outlets on the red carpet, mingled with guests at the film’s after-party held at the Edison Ballroom. The historical venue — located in the heart of Times Square — was decorated as a throwback to a 1920s swinging blues nightclub. A live band performed on stage, and ostrich feathers filled the ballroom. Mo’Nique and her husband Sidney Hicks enjoyed their dinner in a small corner alcove, took photos, and slipped out while Greenberg and his fiancée, actress Jamie Chung, chatted with “Looking” actor Frankie Alvarez and his wife over drinks. Smith’s granddaughter Beverly Ann Clarke also joined the festivities.
(Pictured: Queen Latifah, Richard Plepler, Dee Rees, Mo’Nique and Len Amato at the “Bessie” premiere)