Queen Latifah to Play Bessie Smith: Who is She?

by Alicia Lutes

The Queen is about to get upgraded to an Empress as she heads to HBO. Queen Latifah is set to star in and executive produce a Bessie Smith biopic for the it's-not-TV network, it was announced on Thursday. The movie is said to revolve around the iconic singer's attempts to overcome her tempestuous personal life and go on to become one of the most acclaimed performers in history — let alone the 1920s and 30s when she was active. The film is based on a combination of Smith's life story and the biography Bessie, by author Chris Albertson. So who is this Empress of Blues? No need to head to Google — we've got all of the information you need, right here.

Born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Smith family's life was tragic from the outset. By the age of nine she'd already lost her mother, father, and an older brother. When her sister Viola stepped up to run the household and raise her and her other siblings, Bessie took to busking on the streets of Chattanooga with her brother Andrew on guitar to help earn money for their impoverished household.

Following in her older brother Clarence's footsteps (he was also a performer), in 1912 Bessie auditioned for — and nabbed a role as — a dancer for the Stokes troupe, temporarily making Atlanta her home base before heading to Philadelphia as a recording artist in 1923. Following her marriage to Jack Gee that same year, Bessie quickly became the highest paid black entertainer of the time, headlining her own shows, often featuring up to 40 troupe members as support. But Gee never adjusted to life in show business, and his relationship with Bessie turned tumultuous and infidelity-laced (on both sides). Smith was bisexual — something Gee found very hard to take. It wasn't until 1929, when she learned of his affair with singer Gertrude Saunders that Bessie ended the relationship (though she did not ask for a divorce).

Her career brought her not only to performance spaces, but also Broadway and film, and she had numerous hit records throughout that time. Some of which include "Cemetary Blues," "Gulf Coast Blues," "Downhearted Blues."

Her death, on On September 26, 1937, was the result of a car accident that left her with severe internal injuries. But it was the wait — over 25 minutes — for an ambulance to bring her to the black hospital (yes, really: remember — this was a long time ago, folks), in addition to a second accident that happened during that time, that ultimately caused her death.

Image: Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress [1]