WORDS BY NIKI MCGLOSTER PHOTOGRAPHED BY ARI MICHELSON
For several slow-burning, agonizing moments, Queen Latifah sits stark naked. Drenched in stillness, her 5-foot-10-inch frame settles, mostly without obstruction, forcing your senses to entirely digest these on-screen minutes unhurried. It’s an unfiltered scene, not offensive or vulgar, but calm and altogether empty and melancholic. Unpacking unseen weight of fame and personal devastation, the multifaceted entertainer peels off her gaudy jewels along with her stewing emotions – fully committed to creating the most powerful scene of HBO’s anticipated Bessie – a biopic of blues icon Bessie Smith. “I’ve never done that before,” the newly-turned 45-year-old, born Dana Owens, says as she drives up the California hills toward back-to-back meetings. “It was a little odd but it was also a quiet, relaxing thing. Sometimes she was so alone, and it was a moment for Bessie to acknowledge her vulnerability, which I can completely relate to. When you get to strip it all down and have a moment to yourself, sometimes the world comes crashing down in that little moment, or maybe it’s a moment of peace.”
In some ways, playing the overtly sexual and free-spirited chanteuse de blues is new for the award-winning actress, whose acting credits lean largely toward rom-coms and comedic dramas both on the small and silver screen. Nonetheless, she nailed it. “I don’t find [this nude scene] any more uncomfortable than kissing a girl in Set It Off and sticking to the script. You have to take your mind off of yourself and honor that character. Respect Cleo, respect Bessie.”
The script – written by screenwriter and director Dee Rees (Pariah) and co-executive produced by Latifah’s own production banner, Flavor Unit Entertainment—lingered for 22 years, remaining an unshakeable fixture in Queen’s personal life. She eventually breathed life into this historic tale in one month’s time, and called for a specific cast of talented players – including Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) Oscar-winner Mo’Nique (as Ma Rainey), comedian Mike Epps (Sparkle), Tika Sumpter (The Have and Have Nots), Khandi Alexander (Scandal, The Corner) and theater and television veteran Charles S. Dutton (as Pa Rainey). “I’d revisit this woman’s life story every couple years more and more,” she says. “Although I could’ve pulled off this character when it first came to me, I now have more depth as a human being.”
Smith’s complex history echoes in Latifah’s present-day life in a hauntingly familiar way, beyond an on-screen strip-down and trivial speculation. For years, Queen’s sexuality has been fodder for tabloids, blogs and the paparazzi.