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Interview with Dee Rees

Bessie

HBO

How did you get involved on Bessie?

Dee Rees

I came on to do a rewrite of the script, and was later asked if I wanted to direct, which of course I did.

HBO

Was it intimidating to get involved with a project that had been 22 years in the making?

Dee Rees

My grandmother told me about Bessie Smith and I listened to her music as a kid, so the project felt familiar in a way, like it was the right fit.

HBO

So Bessie was a part of your life from an early age?

Dee Rees

My grandmother would play compilations and this album, One Mo Time, that was a send-up of 1920s black vaudeville with people doing covers of Bessie and Ma Rainey songs. Also, the fact that shes from Tennessee really spoke to me, and the fact that she was a bisexual woman, and that no one talks about that. Bessie was actually very radical in her time.

HBO

Youve said that it might have been easier for Bessie back then than it is for gay black women todaycan you elaborate?

Dee Rees

It does feel that way somehow. I dont know what changed culturally in the decades since. Look at Moms Mabley who was known as "Pops Mabley" offstage because she wore mens clothes, or Gladys Bentley who wore tuxedos and performed in drag. People were freer somehow back then. People had this joie de vivre in some ways. I mean, it wasnt some fairytalewe still had the black codes, we still had Jim Crow-ism and things were horrible for black people, but in terms of the entertainment industry and music, there emerged this anything goes culture. If you were bold enough to put it out there, people accepted it.

HBO

Which books were most influential to your research?

Dee Rees

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis; Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South by Michelle Scott; and Jamaica Kincaid's book, Autobiography of My Mother, really informed me visually and thematically. I read it and understood that Bessie was this motherless child. If your mom dies when youre 8 or 9, that has to leave a mark on you. Maybe youre always trying to get back to this mother love, and thats why she was with Lucille, shes with Jack, shes with Richard. She can never quite get that thing shes searching for.

The moments where Bessie's a child with her motherthat slow-motion, summer feelthose are meant to be her fragmented memories of her mother. As it builds, shes trying to see her mothers face, but she can never quite see it. The moments where its her and Viola, those were scripted as nightmares, stuff that didnt quite happen that way but shes conflating her missing mother with her abusive sister and combining it into this moment of confusion and fear. Jamaica Kincaid was really influential for these moments because she has this gorgeous opening statement in the book where she talks about how when her mother died, there was nothing separating her from the big, black void of the world.

HBO

Can you explain how you used the films color palette to break the story into three acts?

I wanted the color palette to really reflect Bessies growthnot just her growth within her landscape, but within the world.

Dee Rees

I wanted the color palette to really reflect Bessies growthnot just her growth within her landscape, but within the world. So the first act is vaudevilleits shoddy, its monochromatic, its wooden textureseverything is kind of rough. In the second act where shes got the record deal and shes coming into her own, Ma Rainey brings metallic into the palette with her clothes. We see more colors that are less from nature, like fuchsia and turquoise. My idea was that it was gilded decayeverythings golden on the outside, but its rotten on the inside. In the third act, where Bessies life has evened out, we go more toward pastels, more natural colors. Theyre softer and lovely in a simple way; theyre not screaming. Theyre supposed to mirror Bessies favorite memories from childhood, and reflect her getting back to that more bucolic time.

HBO

You didnt choose to end the film with Bessies untimely death. What drove that decision?

Dee Rees

I wanted to leave her with a win. People that dont know Bessie, the one thing they do know is that she died in a car accident. I didnt want to play into the sensation of that because to me, if you cover the car accident, youve got to tear down all that shes accomplished in the last five minutes. I really wanted it to end on Bessie not as a tragic figure, but as a heroic figure. Her song, Long Old Road, shows her relentless optimism in the face of impossibility.

HBO

What are you hoping audiences take away from this film?

Dee Rees

I want them to feel that the blues is and remains a continuum, particularly with women singing the blues. Ma set it up for Bessie, Bessie set it up for Billie, Billie set it up for Nina and it continues today. I want them to see that the blues isnt a dead language, that its vital because its a political and social protest. And the blues have a power that still exists.

For example, Bessie had this one line that wasnt on her recorded albums but that she would sing in a live show: All my life Ive been making it/ All my life white folks have been taking it. Fast forward to modern day and KRS-One has subverted that with, Manhattan keeps on making it/ Brooklyn keeps on taking it. I want audiences to understand how each element of the blues is, and continues to be, in communication with each other.

Bessie

HBO Films

Available on HBO NOW