I’m not sure what the one thing is that has me most excited for HBO’s Bessie. There’s the fact that it’s the next film from writer-director Dee Rees, whose last movie, Pariah, introduced her to many as one of the most exciting new voices in independent filmmaking. There’s the fact that the biopic gives a big, meaty role to Queen Latifah, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Chicago but who is too often typecast or relegated to playing characters on the margins. (She also has the voice for the role: Lately she’s earned Grammy nominations for her albums as a jazz singer.)
And then, of course, there’s the subject matter: The fascinating, underappreciated story of Bessie Smith, the bisexual jazz and blues singer who became the “Empress of the Blues” and one of the most significant stars of early 20th-century popular music. HBO favorite Michael Kenneth Williams will play Smith’s husband Jack Gee, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship, and Mo’Nique will play Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues” who, at least according to legend, helped initiate Rainey into both the bisexual lifestyle and blues singing.
The first teaser for the movie doesn’t show much, but it makes clear that—like Steven Soderbergh’s own great HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra—this won’t look like a TV movie, nor like just another music biopic. Take this as a good reminder to mark your calendars now for May 16th.