Interview with Dee Rees
How did you get involved on Bessie?
I came on to do a rewrite of the script, and was later asked if I wanted to direct, which of course I did.
Was it intimidating to get involved with a project that had been 22 years in the making?
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.
So Bessie was a part of your life from an early age?
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 she’s 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.
You’ve said that it might have been easier for Bessie back then than it is for gay black women today—can you elaborate?
It does feel that way somehow. I don’t know what changed culturally in the decades since. Look at Moms Mabley who was known as "Pops Mabley" offstage because she wore men’s 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 wasn’t some fairytale—we 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.
Which books were most influential to your research?
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 you’re 8 or 9, that has to leave a mark on you. Maybe you’re always trying to get back to this mother love, and that’s why she was with Lucille, she’s with Jack, she’s with Richard. She can never quite get that thing she’s searching for.
The moments where Bessie's a child with her mother—that slow-motion, summer feel—those are meant to be her fragmented memories of her mother. As it builds, she’s trying to see her mother’s face, but she can never quite see it. The moments where it’s her and Viola, those were scripted as nightmares, stuff that didn’t quite happen that way but she’s 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.
Can you explain how you used the film’s color palette to break the story into three acts?
I wanted the color palette to really reflect Bessie’s growth—not just her growth within her landscape, but within the world. So the first act is vaudeville—it’s shoddy, it’s monochromatic, it’s wooden textures—everything is kind of rough. In the second act where she’s got the record deal and she’s 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 decay”—everything’s golden on the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside. In the third act, where Bessie’s life has evened out, we go more toward pastels, more natural colors. They’re softer and lovely in a simple way; they’re not screaming. They’re supposed to mirror Bessie’s favorite memories from childhood, and reflect her getting back to that more bucolic time.
You didn’t choose to end the film with Bessie’s untimely death. What drove that decision?
I wanted to leave her with a win. People that don’t know Bessie, the one thing they do know is that she died in a car accident. I didn’t want to play into the sensation of that because to me, if you cover the car accident, you’ve got to tear down all that she’s 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.
What are you hoping audiences take away from this film?
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 isn’t a dead language, that it’s vital because it’s a political and social protest. And the blues have a power that still exists.
For example, Bessie had this one line that wasn’t on her recorded albums but that she would sing in a live show: “All my life I’ve 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.