In the 1920s in the United States, blues singer Bessie Smith seemed to have a lot of strikes against her for that era. She was black, she was a woman, and she was bisexual.
And yet, she celebrated all of it, very openly, too.
HBO is celebrating the talented performer’s life in a sweeping biopic called Bessie. Debuting May 16, the film isn’t just about the singer’s sexuality, but it doesn’t shy away from it.
Here are some facts about the movie, how it came to be, and why you should see it- especially if you are bisexual:
1. It is Queen Latifah’s passion project. This has been a project that actor/singer Latifah has been wanting to do for more than two decades. Latifah herself has never expressly talked about her own sexuality, but she played a lesbian in “Set it Off,” she was nominated for an Oscar for playing bisexual Mama Morton in “Chicago” and in VH-1’s “Single Ladies,” she played a character who accidentally comes out and declares, “Gay is the new black!”
2. Bessie’s Bisexuality. Latifah plays Bessie Smith and openly shares her bed with both men and women.
3. Ma Rainey’s Bisexuality. Another famous singer of the day, Ma Rainey, is also shown in a relationship with Bessie. Played by Mo’Nique, Ma Rainey’s character also appears to be rather openly bisexual.
4. The Queer Director Dee Rees tried for years to get a crime drama made, but studios didn’t bite because the lead character is a black lesbian. Even though the story wasn’t about the character’s sexuality, Rees had trouble getting the project done, so she jumped on this history project that explores the real history of a bisexual person.
5. It’s about Freedom. The director puts it best: “[Bessie Smith] was this free spirit who basically spoke her truth and lived her life the way she wanted to live it. It seemed almost impossible,” director Rees tells Out Magazine. “She was actually creating this forum to talk about women’s issues. Specifically black women’s issues. Not a lot changed for black people then besides your sexuality and your geographic mobility. You could choose who you wanted to be with and you could choose where you wanted to go.”
6. Nude scene. Latifah gives a very stark nude scene where she stands in front of a mirror. Director Rees says, “That’s a very intimate scene. She gives a brave performance and a very honest performance.”
7. Married, with a Female Lover. Bessie Smith was married, very successfully, but had a female lover on the side. While on tour, she had more. She once told her lover at the time, Lillian Simpson: “I got 12 women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it.”
8. Singing the Bi Blues. Her lyrics were often with hidden messages. She had some explicit lesbian references in “It’s Dirty But Good.” And in the song “The Boy in the Boat,” she croons: “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ’em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties — have the lights down low — only those parties where women can go.”
10. Groundbreaking entertainer. At the time, Bessie Smith was the highest-paid black entertainer. She headlined her own shows and often had as many as 40 back-up dancers. She toured in her own railroad car. She worked with Louis Armstrong, mentored bisexual Billie Holiday and was responsible for shepherding in the “Swing Era” of music.
11. On Latifah’s Sexuality? Director Rees doesn’t do any of her own outing, but says to Out Magazine, “As a director I think she was the only person to play this. I don’t think you can give a performance like that without it coming from an honest place.”
12. The impact. “I think it’s inspiring for people who could be unsure about their sexuality,” Director Rees said. “I think this portrayal will give this visibility to black, queer women of color. I think it will be something that’s empowering.”