On Queen Latifah and coming out

Tonight on HBO, Queen Latifah stars as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith in the Dee Rees-directed biopic Bessie. The film delves into Bessie’s relationships with both men and women, giving Queen romantic and sexual scenes with co-star Tika Sumpter, who plays Bessie’s lover, Lucille. 

While speculation about Queen Latifah’s sexuality is nothing new and is now treated more as an open secret (she is often out in public holding hands and kissing her partner, Eboni Nichols), it appears that being part of such a queer film about authenticity and embracing who you are is not the platform the artist/actress is using to come out. In interviews leading up to Bessie, many journalists have tried to ask her to speak to Bessie’s freedom and comfort level with living a sexually fluid life, but it becomes clear during these conversations that Queen Latifah is not ready to relate them to her own.

Queen with Eboni Nichols
Film Independent At LACMA Special Screening Of "Bessie"

One interview that struck me as particularly awkward was earlier this week on Good Morning America, where out host Robin Roberts brings up Bessie’s having affairs with men and women.

“For me,” Queen said, “I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t think about coming off of two weeks before that being Queen Latifah, the talk show host. I couldn’t think about being the partner of Flavor Unit Entertainment or just being my mom’s daughter or my friend… I couldn’t think about anything else and I couldn’t have any fear in playing this character because she really deserves to somebody play her with some kind of fearlessness.” 

Robin Roberts, who came out publicly last year, is one of few out black women in the public eye. As Wanda Sykes once joked, “…being an African-American celebrity who’s out, it was like they started treating me like a unicorn. We’ve never seen one of you before! It’s like me and RuPaul. I guess that’s it.” Of course there are also athletes like Brittney Griner and Seimone Augustus, rapper Angel Haze, writers like Alice Walker and actress Raven-Symone, but there is still a lacking of role models for women of color when it comes to mainstream media and entertainment. Queen Latifah is one of the most successful and well-recognized black women in America, coming off of her own talk show, producing films with her aforementioned production company, starring in major films, releasing albums and lending her face to brands like Cover Girl. The kind of influence she could wield if she did come out would be massive.

So why doesn’t she? 

Perhaps we can look to Bessie for the answer. Although Bessie Smith was out to her close friends and family, her sexuality was likely not discussed or acknowledged as bisexual by audiences. In her heyday (the 1920s and ’30s), homosexuality might have been accepted in bohemian circuits, but not necessarily a topic of polite conversation, at least not in any kind of public forum. Bessie married a man and was, for all intents and purposes, straight to those who paid to see her sing. Even if she joked or sang about women on stage, it was safely part of an act, much like Queen Latifah’s role as Bessie or in the 1997 film Set It Off, where she played a butch bank robber named Cleo. Set it Off is some of of Queen’s best work, both a critical and box office success that also garnered her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Female.