HBO’s biopic of blues singer Bessie Smith was an over 20-years-in-the-making project. It wasn’t until Pariah writer-director Dee Rees reworked the Bessie script and eventually landed the helming gig that the TV movie fell into place, subsequently earning 12 Emmy nominations, including two for Rees (in writing and directing) and one for lead actress Queen Latifah. Rees has been a hot commodity since Pariah debuted to great fanfare at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, but she was happy to not follow it up with a coming-of-age tale like she was being pitched, but a complex character portrait of this well-known historical figure. Here, Rees discusses her vision for Bessie and how directing an episode of Fox’s hit drama Empire has inspired her to do a Western.
What were your first thoughts when reading whatever was the current script of Bessie before you were brought on?
I didn’t like what was there before so I just started over. For me, I really wanted to get at why Bessie was the way she was. I wasn’t interested in what people said—these kind of anecdotes told from other perspectives—I really wanted to start with just really getting her world view down. In the research of her everything is conflicting. Even with her birthday there’s three different years cited. So I just really tried to go for what were the circumstances. She would have come up and been in Chattanooga where there might have been Union soldiers still around. She would have been in a place where there were still blackface performances. She had to have been molded by these experiences, so I saw her as this political person not really trying to be political—a very conscious person, a very proud person, and someone who, having seen all that, was going to take control of her own image and control how she was presented and how she was received.
Pariah really set a path for you. Did you feel you had a certain level of carte blanche to recreate this story?
There are similarities. For me, Pariah is very much about that inner churn. It’s about this person’s emotional inner life and that’s really what I wanted to bring to Bessie. Beyond the chronological aspect of, “This is what happened and this is what happened,” I really wanted to get inside her head and what was driving those choices. I saw this woman as someone who maybe felt abandoned at a young age. I just kind of started from there. If you have this void then what do you fill it with? The money doesn’t fill it; sex doesn’t fill it. She’s a person who’s not really able to give and receive love completely.
What was the jump in production like from writing and directing an indie like Pariah to making this film for HBO with this cast?
I just prepare the same way because the extra money gets you lights, it gets you bigger equipment, but it doesn’t get you better performances. For each character I try to understand what is driving them. I try to work the relationships, so I do workshops with the actors, between Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) and Bessie (Queen Latifah), between Bessie and Lucille (Tika Sumpter), between Bessie and Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams). In these one-on-one relationship workshops they’re in a room, in each other’s faces, being uncomfortable and breaking through the discomfort right away so when we get to set it’s already there. I think it lets the actors know, just on a technical level, when the other is lying. When you’re not believing the line, “OK, that’s not real.” Then they can push each other and give it to me again.
How did production and costume design play into your vision?
I like to really use all that stuff to hype the characterization and put them in the world. With Bessie, she starts out in vaudeville and looks bad, like she went backstage and sewed a curtain together. She’s wearing boots with her costumes. Then she moves to the second act where she becomes more and more metallic and it’s larger than life. The colors are more hyper and it’s almost like a departure from the more monochrome feel of the vaudeville days, but all the things are better. My idea for the second act was gilded decay, so everything is grand but it’s rotten inside. And then the third act was this return to pastels, naturalism. She has that red dress. She’s more in harmony with her background. She goes back to moss, the greens, the softer colors. Michael T. Boyd, my costume designer, did an amazing job. The bittersweet part is that he wasn’t nominated. He really put his heart and soul in the costumes. It was one of the first departments that started running. I was inspired by the photography of Richard Samuel Roberts, a black man who worked in the 1920s who did all this great portraiture. I had his book and made sure everybody had photos, from production design to the costume department to the actors—pictures of everyday people who had pride. I didn’t want to have dusty, dirty, raggedy people.
Queen Latifah loved that there was humor in some of Bessie’s painful experiences. Was that something you were deliberate about?
In the writing I wanted there to be these moments. For example, throwing out this very serious idea about “negritude.” I wanted people to go back and look up negritude. So when Jack Gee is like, “Well, what the fuck is that?” He’s actually asking, “So, what does it mean to be black?” And Bessie is contending with different types and different ways of being black. She’s actually too black for the black art establishment and she’s too black for the white art establishment. So there was this very interesting conversation about blackness, but it’s disguised as a joke within a joke so that you’re entertained. I’m actually trying to show “colorism”—these things that were perpetuated and persist to this day and, also, just within ourselves. How do we decide who we are and how do we decide what’s right? Who’s black enough? Who’s too black?—this concern with representation that existed before now. Contemporarily, we struggle with people worried about representation sometimes. It’s a burden, as artists, that we take on that limits the work. It limits the characters people play. It limits the roles they want to do. No one wants to be the villain because we’ve been so maligned. No one now wants to take on complicated, kind of gray-area characters because we’re trying to make up for the hundreds of years of fucked up cinema. Sometimes you can’t do that or you can’t do that all the time. We have to create a range and we have to let there be possibilities. And basically, by showing there are different types of people, you write down the monolith. You stop having to represent for all black people when you allow there to be different types represented.
What are you working on next?
I’m eager to do something to get back into theatrical, so I’m working on an adaptation of a Zadie Smith book, which I’m excited about.
I don’t know if I can say, but I’m excited. She’s a genius f–king writer and I’m working with her. You have to unpack her sentences. She’ll say things in this very sharp way and you realize she’s done so much with eight words, you know?
I just finished directing an episode of Empire, which I love. The cast is huge. They’re bad-ass. I love them. I’m lucky because I’m earlier in the season so I think everybody is still fresh and happy reading the scripts, and the crew is fresh. They know their characters so I know I’m not going to tell them any breakthrough thing on their character. It’s about the story that’s in front of us—“What is it about? What are the overall themes?” It’s just bending each scene toward that. I just try to keep it in Lee Daniel’s vision. This is Lee and Danny Strong and Eileen Chaiken’s baby, so I’m just trying to keep it in their image. As a writer, I feel like I can maybe try to understand the writers more, and I just really want to get at their intention and understand what they’re really saying. I just want to make it great—the characters, all these tangled relationships, this family dynamic and the dysfunctions. It was really fun to play and work with. The thing I realize, after doing Empire, is that I think I want to do a Western because I like the extreme angles and the standoffs and the showdowns. This is actually just Western language. Maybe I should do one because that’s the stuff I’m responding to.