Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 7th 2015 Contents At 45, Queen Latifah is playing
a part she was first offered when
she was 22.
When she first got the script,
she told Strassmann, "I didn t
know who Bessie Smith was. I had
to go do some homework. And I
did. When I listened to her music,
I was initially intimidated."
But Latifah has evolved as a
performer over two decades, from
hip hop artist and producer, to
movie star in films like Jungle
Fever and The Secret Life of Bees.
She also lived a lot along the
way---enough to understand, now,
who Bessie Smith really was.
"She had so much power," she
said. "Power in her fist. Power in her
heart. Power in her body, her soul."
"I do admire her. I mean, I relate
to her in a lot of ways. I ve lived
her life in a lot of ways."
Bessie Smith was the most
popular female blues singer of the
1920s and 30s. She starred in
vaudeville, then signed with
Columbia Records in 1923. She
was highest-paid black performer
of her day.
But her marriage was stormy.
She battled the bottle. She had
affairs with both men and women.
In 1937, Smith died after a car
accident. She was 43. But you hear
her lasting influence in performers
like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin
and Janis Joplin.
"I wish I was there to just see one
of her shows, to be way in the back
and just have a little ticket into that
audience and just watch her just
blow this place out," said Latifah.
"What emotions do you hear in
Bessie Smith s voice?" asked Strass-
"I hear pain," she said. "I hear
love. I hear sadness. I hear, f*** it,
irreverence. Excuse my language!
But that s really what I hear, is really
devil-may-care. I hear a rough day.
I hear a good day, you know. I can
hear when she probably had a good
night the night before."
"If there s a fine line between Sat-
urday night and Sunday morning,
you hear em both?"
"Most of the time, yeah, I hear all
those things!" Latifah laughed.
Shakim Compere has been Lat-
ifah s business partner from Day One.
They met during high school in Irv-
ington, New Jersey. Compere says,
like Bessie, Latifah has always been
"She was a guy s girl, right?" said
Compere. "She was the girl that
demanded respect from the men---
and men liked that. She didn t let
you get away with anything. I mean,
she was one woman hanging out
with, like, ten guys."
And nobody messed with her.
As performers, both Latifah and
Bessie had to stand their ground.
"You know, I hit racist stuff," said
Latifah. "It was almost ridiculous. I
felt like I had to be a spokesperson
for black people. We had a show,
and we stayed at this hotel. And,
you know, we went to swim in the
hotel. And my DJ got in the pool.
And this woman got out the pool.
It just wasn t happening, you know?
She wasn t getting in the pool with
a black man."
The movie shows Bessie Smith
performing before a segregated audi-
ence---whites sit in the orchestra,
blacks in the balcony.
Strassmann asked, "What was it
like to walk out on stage and come
face-to-face with that?"
"Whenever I play a scene where
there s racial components like that,
where there s segregation, divisive-
ness, it s always difficult," she replied.
"Because this is not just a role. People
have actually lived this. And even
though it s a musical, this really hap-
Take the "paper bag test"---this
was an era that wanted black per-
formers, just not too black. They had
to be lighter than a brown paper bag.
"Every racist scene is hard to do,
cause they re not just scenes; they re
real life," she said.
But Bessie Smith s real demon may
well have been loneliness. In the
movie, she s seen quite literally baring
her soul, confronting herself in the
"She s got the outfits, the shoes.
People adore her," said Latifah. "But
she comes home to the people she
wants to come home to and there s
no one there, strip it all down, you
know? Take it all away. And it s still
Bessie and Bessie."
"Two of you would have been
"Oh, we woulda, yeah. I ve ran
into a few Bessies through the years.
And I think my mom and everybody
in my life, uh-huh!
"I m pretty sure I would have con-
nected with Bessie and people would
have been sitting me down every
night for a lecture on why we
shouldn t have done that---it would
have been that kind of thing."
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, May 7, 2015
In the HBO drama, Queen Latifah shows how Bessie Smith had to perform before segregated audiences.
PHOTO COURTESY HBO
In her latest role, Queen Latifah adopts the
persona of a 20th century legend. CBS
correspondent MARK STRASSMANN spoke
with her about the role she's wanted for a
very long time.
Queen Latifah revels in playing Bessie Smith
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