Dee Rees on the real life Ma Rainey/Bessie Smith friendship and HBO’s “Bessie”

Tomorrow night on HBO, Bessie will introduce viewers to queer legends of soul music, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique, respectively, star as the traveling blues singers who had relationships with both women and men.

Under the helm of out filmmaker Dee Rees (who first made a splash with her Sundance film Pariah), Bessie expertly shows how the women built their careers at a time when being a black female usually meant being relegated to cleaning houses or teaching school. Instead, Bessie and Ma drank heavily, partied hard and enjoyed lots of sex. While they start out as friends, things get a little complicated as Bessie’s star begins to rise, and they go their separate ways.

Queen Latifah and Dee ReesFilm Independent At LACMA Special Screening Of "Bessie"

We spoke with Dee Rees about the real relationship Ma and Bessie had and what it was like to work with Queen and Mo’Nique on set. Ma Rainey is sort of a mentor to Bessie in this film. Was that their relationship in real life?

Dee Rees: Yeah, so Ma and Bessie’s relationship was actually really complicated in real life. I’ve read some reports that suggested they were maybe lovers also. But I really wanted to show that Ma—I needed someone to be able to reach Bessie. It had to be someone Bessie could look up to, and I just didn’t buy that a man or guy would be the person to be her guiding light, and Ma Rainey was someone was a mentor to Bessie. I think Bessie already had talent and was establishing herself, and Ma was someone she could model herself after.

Like Ma had an empire, you know? Bessie wanted her own empire. Here’s this woman who enjoys her sexuality and displays it. It was just a way for Bessie to kind of like, see what she wanted. Bessie and [her lover] Lucille—we see them in the boarding house, and then here’s Ma Rainey, out in the open and everybody knows. She’s performing in drag.

In terms of character, that really gave me a deep relationship and allowed me to show who Bessie might have looked up to and how she might have begun shaping her own career. Beyond that, Ma’s trying to get her to not give into hubris—to be about the people, respect the people, and we see that. … I also wanted to show that these women love each other and can be competitive with each other and come back together. It wasn’t an either/or conversation. It’s Bessie and Ma. They had space for each other in their world.

AE: What was the Dana (Queen Latifah)/Mo’Nique relationship like on set? 

DR: Mo’Nique was great to work with. She’s amazing. She’s completely immersive in her process. She jumps in—she was listening to Lucille Bogan songs. They’re both so charismatic so yeah, there was a sense of camaraderie and coming from myself as a director, I workshopped with Dana. I had them in my office together, recounting old road stories, making up war stories, you know? Talking about their conquests. Not real stories but in character, making up these stories about their exploits as Ma and Bessie. They were laughing and would crack each other up.

Once we were able to establish that relationship, we were able to expand it on set because we know what it’s about and where we’re going. They had to get upset and get in each other’s faces and, at the end of the day, they loved each other. The love is always there, even when they fight. The love is still there.


AE: There’s a great moment toward the end of the film where they reconnect. Did that really happen?

DR: In real life, I don’t know that Bessie and Ma ever really had a falling out or they ever came back together. But I inserted it in dramatically to show how this relationship might have progressed. Again, having Ma kind of be the healing character, the model character, I didn’t want to end it with them having split. I wanted to show all types of relationships, and at the end of the day, they’re loving, they’re peers, they’re competitors and Bessie is able to humble herself.

There’s a moment I love when they’re not together where Ma is listening to Bessie’s records. And so that stuff I made up, but I imagine their friendship just like any relationship had its ups and downs. So I used it for dramatic effect to show how their relationship was.


AE: Both Bessie and Ma were very free with their sexuality and even though they never really had a discussion about it, no one really seemed to care about their relationships with women. Is that something that you found in your research?

DR: In Angela Davis’s book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, she writes about the things people had after emancipation. The precursor to Jim Crow was still there, so in terms of freedoms and civil liberties, black people were still limited. But the two things you do have are your sexuality and your geographic mobility: Your mate’s not chosen for you by a plantation owner, and you have trains now. You can go across the country, so now there’s no reason you can’t go. You might have to ride in the back, but you can go, you can move. I wanted to show these women are kind of in that—Ma Rainey comes on stage with a suitcase with her tags still on it. She’s showing the audience you can go—you can go, too.

And in terms of sexuality, I think, among these women, I can’t speak for—I’m sure it always existed but especially because they had wealth, they had such a pedestal and a following … they were freer. More free than people today. You had people like Gladys Bentley in Harlem, for example, performing in a white tuxedo. You had Moms Mabley who off-stage was called Pops Mabley. And you had Bessie and you had Ma.

So this was a thing … they had these parties in someone’s apartment and it was known to be a huge queer thing. It was like an open secret—like it was a known thing. I think it was in how you carried it. Ma carried herself a certain way, people accepted it. Gladys carried herself in a certain way and people accepted it. Lucile Bogan had songs about gay women. Bessie and Ma have songs about women … they were calling life like it is. They were “shaving ’em dry,” as Ma would say.


AE: Bessie had relationships with men, too. Do you see her as using them to get the power she needed or do you think she really loved them?

DR: I saw her as someone who took relationships in a case-by-case basis. I think she was getting what she could out of each relationship, you know? So from [Bessie’s huband] Jack G, Bessie was getting a sense of safety and protection–somebody who would fight for her. Jack G keeps the outside out. And with Lucille, she got nurturing. So I think Bessie was just getting what she needed out of each relationship, irrespective of gender. It was about her having this this need, needing this role, needing this love—she couldn’t commit fully to one person, her needing to have her cake and eat it too. She needed love in all its forms, and she needed it from many people.


AE: Was this a dream project for you?

DR: Yeah, it was great. When I first got to read the script I was like, “Hell yeah!” On a simple level, here’s this Tennessee woman. I’m from Tennessee. But of course I want to tell this story. Here’s this woman who knew who she was, had a thick skin and kind of went out and defied convention. She didn’t clean houses, she didn’t wash clothes. At the time, being a teacher was the best you could hope for. She built herself on her own terms. How many people even do that today—build yourself on your own terms and enjoy the fruits of it?

Bessie premieres on HBO tomorrow at 8pm EST.