Director Dee Rees Talks Making of Emmy Award HBO Biopic Bessie
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Director Dee Rees On Making Emmy Award-Winning HBO Movie ‘Bessie’ With Queen Latifah

(Image: Sony Pictures Television) How did you get attached to this project? I read that you wrote a pilot for HBO that didn’t get picked up, but they offered you the chance to direct Bessie.

Rees: I came on two years ago to rewrite the script in 2012. So, I started with a blank page and rewrote from page one. Over the course of two year I was working on developing the script for HBO. When they asked me to direct it, I said of course. I was always writing with a director’s eye so I was thrilled when it got the green light and I was brought on to direct.

How did you research Bessie? Were you already very familiar with her life story?

I started in the library because there is not a lot about her life; there is not a lot that has been recorded. I specifically wanted to have a women’s perspective when I was writing it. I didn’t want a guy’s perspective about who he thought she was. I read her song lyrics. I think that’s [the] best way to find out about an artist, what they were talking about and what they were interested in. There is a great book by Angela Davis called Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. In terms of imagery, there is a black photographer, Richard Samuel Roberts, who did 1920s and 1930s South Carolina portraitures. I tried to imagine this backdrop behind her. I didn’t want the brassy stories about Bessie. I wanted to get into her inner core.

Why was it important to show that Bessie was a bi-sexual woman (her lover Lucille is a composite character)?

Yes. Lucille is a composite character, kind of a made-up character. I knew that Bessie had had relationships with both men and women, and I wanted to show her as a woman who took humanity on a case-by-case basis. She loved who she wanted to love. But basically, it is important to show that because Bessie is a complete human being. I don’t think we should hide parts ourselves, abbreviated versions. In our history [as African Americans], people who have been influential have been LGBT.

LGBT artists like Bessie and Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who dressed in men’s clothing, who were open about their relationships with women, were freer to express themselves than those today? Why is that?

I don’t know why that is. But it just seems interesting that during the 20s embracing a fluid sexuality was a ‘known thing’ among such artists at the time. People, especially entertainers, exhibited this freedom that really empowered them. In post-emancipation, things hadn’t really changed for black people, but the two things people did have now: sexual freedom and geographic mobility. And so I think people were really harnessing the two things that they did have. So economically, things were still depressed. Socially, things were still depressed, but you have freedom of who you love and freedom over where you go. I think it was kind of representative of the times that they lived [in] and having these new liberties.

What was it like directing Queen Latifah as Bessie?

She has been on board wanting to do this movie now for 20 years. I was writing the script with her in mind. Work is the same, whether it is a big name star or a new actor. It is about getting the thing [the script and the actors] aligned. I try to focus on the thing at hand. Scene by scene you build a movie.

What do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing Bessie?

I hope they walk away with an understanding of what it means to be an artist. There are things that we still struggle [with] as a black artist, like how to make your work meaningful and still be able to support yourself. Bessie was political. Bessie was very savvy during a time when black people weren’t able to profit from their talent. Although it was exploited, she was still able to basically reach a lot of people and have this kind of social activism, and feminine activism, that resonates today. She had personal struggles. She failed many times, but she was resilient. She got back up. As an artist I really relate to her.

What have you learned as a filmmaker since making Pariah?

Be true to yourself. Don’t take on things just because. Be patient and do something that you love rather than do it for the money. I have been fortunate to work on things I love and care about. So that way the work is never wasted. The energy is never misspent. It is easier working on a television movie than an independent film. I had more resources. I had more hands, more bodies so that I wasn’t doing everything myself. I had a bigger budget. A big budget buys you better cameras, better lights, more music, more costumes, and better performances. It all comes back to working the actors. That doesn’t matter how big the budget [is]. That doesn’t change, television versus theatrical. Either the audience will believe it or they won’t. That isn’t dependent upon how much you spend on a film or a television series.

As a writer-director will you continue to tell stories that resonate with LGBT persons of color?

I’m not going to shy away from those stories, but I also don’t want to be limited. I want to deal with all kinds of stories and show interesting characters. My advice to aspiring filmmakers, future storytellers, is it is all about the writing. Everything starts with a script. Writing is the part of the process where you have the most control. You don’t need money. You don’t need a green light. You don’t even need a laptop. You can write longhand with a pen or pencil. Embrace the writing process, which is freeing, create content. Create something undeniable and it will attract talent. The actors will come. The money will come. Writing is key. If you can write, that is your ticket.  Yes with today’s technology you can shoot your film on an iPhone, But if it is a bad script, it is going to be a bad film. It starts with the writing. That is the base. That is the foundation.