Queen Latifah Lets It All Hang Out for HBO’s Bessie

Queen Latifah in Bessie

Queen Latifah bares herself—literally and figuratively—in Bessie, an HBO biopic based on the life of Bessie Smith, the Roaring ’20s blues legend and sexual libertine who could sit down with her husband, Jack (Michael Kenneth Williams), and her female lover, Lucille (Tika Sumpter), at the same supper table and somehow make it work.

“It was a very different time, a wild time, and Bessie was going to do whatever she wanted to do,” Latifah says. “Each person in her life served a purpose. Some gave her protection and safety, some gave love and friendship. They all provided sex.” Of course, they wanted something from Bessie, too. “She was a lot of people’s meal ticket,” says Latifah. “And that meant she called the shots.”

Smith’s powerful raise-the-roof voice and long string of hits—among them “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “After You’ve Gone,” and “St. Louis Blues”—made her a very rich lady. “But it didn’t take away the pain,” Latifah says. “There was so much heartache in her life and soul in her music that it really spoke to the black audience at a time of great racism and classism. They needed to feel someone understood them.”

Bessie and her mentor, Ma Rainey (played in the film by Oscar winner Mo’Nique), were “the first truly powerful black women in this country,” Latifah notes. “They were smart, fantastic business people who didn’t just get up and sing. They put on real events, selling food and merchandise right along with all that glorious music. They were branding themselves decades before the idea was invented.”

She admits she felt a spiritual connection with the lady she portrays. “In the early days of filming, I was praying a lot,” Latifah says. “I’d talk to Bessie and say, ‘Hey, help me out here, will you? I want to do you justice. I want to know what you were feeling at this moment in your life.’ And, about a week into shooting, I was feeling her completely. It became very easy to step into her shoes. It just felt so right, you know?”

This is the boldest move of Latifah’s career—and not just because she chose to sing Smith’s songs herself, rather than lip-synch to recordings. The actress is seen in an audacious, surprisingly lengthy topless sequence, played in front of Bessie’s vanity mirror, that’ll make you forget all about Viola Davis’ acclaimed no-wig, no-makeup moment in How to Get Away with Murder.

“I needed to fire on all levels for this one,” Latifah says. “It’s not just the singing, acting, and a little dancing. It’s the rawness of the emotions in Bessie’s life—the fights, the drinking, the sex, the nakedness. I couldn’t wear a seatbelt and play this part. I had to let it all hang out.”

Bessie airs Saturday, May 16, 8/7c, HBO.