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‘Bessie’ Director Dee Rees on Bessie Smith’s Ferocity and Facing Prejudice

Queen Latifah delivers a fierce performance in “Bessie,” the upcoming HBO biopic about blues legend Bessie Smith. The character is prone to sudden outbursts of violence — slapping and smacking and turning over tables — that are startling to see from a woman, even one of such physical stature, and even when they come in self-defense.

There is also a ferocity in the way the camera artfully captures the character’s intimidating, in-your-face aspect that makes it hard to believe that “Bessie,” which premieres May 16 on the premium cabler, is the work of a director with only one previous feature-length narrative film under her belt. But there’s more than a little of Bessie Smith’s determination in writer-director Dee Rees.

“Bessie doesn’t go around things; she goes straight through. She’s always coming right at the camera,” Rees explains. “I used a lot of Steadicam to (add) that dynamic movement to the character. In the fight scenes, (Latifah) would get revved up and stay in the moment. I told her, ‘I just want you to do it. I don’t care if you cross a (blocking) line or whatever, just go. It’s up to us to get the cameras out of your way.’ ”

Rees, 38, had an intuitive sense of how to tackle Smith’s story. The singer’s battles with racial prejudice and acceptance in mainstream culture as a female entrepreneur still resonate today. Rees cites her own experience on the showbiz roller-coaster after making a splash at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with her first feature, “Pariah,” a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old lesbian in Brooklyn.

“If I had been a filmmaker of another ilk, I’d probably have been on a stratospheric trajectory after I hit Sundance,” she says, not with outrage, but coolly analytical. “Going into a room and saying, ‘I’m a black lesbian’ — it’s a strike against you.”

“Pariah” was picked up for distribution out of Sundance by Focus Features. James Schamus, who headed Focus at the time, says Rees came into the unfamiliar territory of indie-film dealmaking with a “scary” level of skill.

Patrick James Miller for Variety

“Even as a filmmaker showing her first movie for the first time, she had the ability to terrify you with the fierceness of her intellect and talent,” Schamus recalls. “She has that combination of infinite empathy and a fierce intelligence that will not let anyone on the team do anything less than their greatest work.”

A native of Nashville, Rees took a roundabout path to filmmaking. She earned an MBA from Florida A&M U., and then worked in marketing for Procter & Gamble and pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough in New York. There, she was tasked with overseeing a commercial shoot for DynaStep insoles, and the experience was a revelation. “I was following the P.A. around the whole time, and was like, ‘What is this?’ I was told, ‘This is film production,’ and I said, ‘How do I get into this?’ ”

Rees did not grow up dreaming of making movies, but she did grow up at the movies — the only child of film buffs. Her father, a Nashville police officer, has a taste for horror and popcorn fare, while her mother, a scientist at Vanderbilt U., is a devotee of African-American cinema in all forms. Rees’ interest in marketing was sparked in part by the 1992 Eddie Murphy-Robin Givens comedy “Boomerang,” in which Murphy plays an ad exec.

After the epiphany at the commercial shoot, Rees found her way to NYU film school. The program grounded her in the nuts and bolts of lensing. Internships with Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and Mule — she worked on HBO hurricane Katrina doc “When the Levees Broke” and the feature “Inside Man” — gave her real-world experience. From there, she nurtured her 2007 short film “Pariah” into a feature. She’d learned enough to stand her ground on casting and creative decisions, even at the risk of losing financing. “When we met with Dee and her producer, Nekisa Cooper, they were as impressive as the movie,” Schamus recalls.

After Sundance, Rees headed to Los Angeles, where she made the rounds with a pilot script dubbed “The Ville” that was set in her hometown. It didn’t sell, but it opened doors. She wrote a pilot for HBO that was to star Viola Davis as the head of an inner-city school. That didn’t get made either, but HBO offered her the chance to revive the long-gestating “Bessie.” It was a big vote of confidence not only from the cabler, but from Latifah and producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck.

Rees wrote a new script from scratch. To capture the essence of her subject, she went straight to Smith’s music, which she’d discovered as a kid, thanks to her grandmother. But she didn’t know much about the woman behind the voice, other than that she was a fellow Tennessean. “I really wanted to understand why Bessie was the way she was. I didn’t want the brassy stories about her. I wanted to get into her inner churn,” Rees says. “Her music and lyrics tell us what she said in her time.”

The arrival of “Bessie” puts Rees in the industry spotlight at a time of heightened attention for African-American and female filmmakers. And “Bessie” is sure to get the kudos campaign treatment from HBO. But the writer-director remains cautious.

“I feel like there have been all these moments for (black filmmakers),” Rees notes, “but when is it going to be a connected, constant period of work so that (we) can be the rule, not the exception? I still want to do features, but on my own terms. I can’t put anything out that’s not me.”

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