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Bessie: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Queen Latifah, Michael Kenneth Williams, Tika Sumpter, Mike Epps | based on the biography 'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Queen Latifah (born Dana Elaine Owens)
Born: March 18, 1970
Newark, New Jersey, USA
Bessie Smith
Born: April 15, 1894
Birthplace: Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
Death: September 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA (car accident)
Michael Kenneth Williams
Born: November 22, 1966
Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
John "Jack" Gee
Born: c. Mar 7, 1888
Birthplace: Mackenburg County, Virginia, USA
Mo'Nique (born Monique Imes)
Born: December 11, 1967
Woodlawn, Maryland, USA
Ma Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett)
Born: c. April 26, 1886
Birthplace: Columbus, Georgia, USA
Death: December 22, 1939, Rome, Georgia, USA (heart attack)
No time to marry, no time to settle down; I'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' aroun'. -Bessie Smith, "Young Woman's Blues"

Questioning the Story:

Did Bessie Smith's mother really die when Bessie was a child?

Yes. The true story confirms that Bessie's mother, Laura Smith, died when Bessie was eight or nine. Her father, William Smith, had died when she was a baby. Like in the movie, her oldest sister, Viola, assumed the responsibility of raising her and her four other siblings: Andrew, Lulu, Tinnie, and Clarence. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Queen Latifah (left) portrays Bessie in the movie. The real Bessie Smith is pictured on the right.

Was Ma Rainey responsible for Bessie Smith's success?

No. The Bessie movie true story reveals that most of the credit goes to Bessie's brother Clarence, who got her a job with the Moses Stokes company with whom he was employed. The company's cast included Ma Rainey, who then went by her birth name, Gertrude. Bessie started out primarily as a dancer with the company. Bessie was already a talented singer prior to meeting Ma Rainey. It's possible that Rainey taught Bessie a few show business tricks and perhaps introduced Bessie to some of her songs, but to imply that Rainey made Bessie a star is not true. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Is Bessie's female love interest in the movie, Lucille, based on a real person?

No. Lucille (Tika Sumpter) is likely a composite of several people, including Bessie Smith's niece by marriage, Ruby Walker, who was a close companion and a performer in her aunt's shows. Like Lucille in the movie, Ruby left Bessie's life at around the same time, just prior to when Bessie's marriage fell apart. However, in real life, Ruby didn't leave to start a family of her own. Jack Gee removed his niece from Bessie's life, either by manipulation or force, and Ruby ended up joining Jack's mistress Gertrude Saunders' show.

The Lucille character was also likely inspired by Lillian Simpson, a former schoolmate of Ruby's who was fascinated by show business and had persuaded Ruby to get her a job as one of Bessie's chorus girls. Like in the movie, Bessie was bisexual and had affairs with both women and men, which she normally tried to conceal from her husband, Jack Gee, who had affairs of his own. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Lucille is not based on a real person, but is instead a composite of several people in Bessie's life.

Was Bessie's husband, Jack Gee, illiterate?

Yes. Chris Albertson's biography confirms what is implied in the HBO Bessie movie. It describes Jack as being "virtually illiterate," stating that this was probably a good thing since Jack could not read about Bessie's exploits in black gossip publications like the Interstate Tattler.

Did Bessie Smith really chase Ku Klux Klan members away from one of her tent performances?

Yes, the Bessie movie true story confirms that this happened on a July night in 1927 in Concord, North Carolina, though there is no evidence that she chased them with a hatchet. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Did Bessie really move her family in to live with her?

Not exactly. The real Bessie Smith moved her family, including her sister Viola, up from Chattanooga, but not to live in the same Philadelphia house with her and her husband. She instead rented them adjoining houses in her neighborhood. It was a generous gesture, but her family members were spending her money faster than she could make it. It also didn't help that her husband, Jack Gee, had a gambling problem, which resulted in her paying off his debts. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Did Bessie's sister Viola really abuse her?

Yes. Bessie's niece, Ruby Walker, said that she doesn't remember Bessie's sister Viola liking anybody, calling her a "nasty woman" in Chris Albertson's Bessie biography. "...she was even nasty to Bessie, who did everything for her." In addition to bearing the burden of running the family, Viola was left hurt and jaded after a brief romance ended, which resulted in a daughter, Laura, and a general hatred towards men.

Things especially got worse around 1910 or 1911, when Bessie's brother Clarence left home to perform as a comedian and master of ceremonies for the Moses Stokes company. Bearing an increased burden, "Viola did some terrible things to Bessie," said Maud Smith, Clarence's widow, including locking Bessie in an outhouse all night.

Khandi Alexander portrays Bessie's sister Viola.

Did Bessie's husband Jack and her sister Viola really not like each other?

Yes, and Bessie was amused by their dislike for one another. In exploring the Bessie movie true story, we discovered that Bessie set up her bank account so that Jack needed Viola's signature in order to withdraw money when Bessie was away. It was an arrangement that infuriated Jack and humored Bessie. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Did the real Bessie Smith adopt a son, Jack, Jr.?

Yes. However, she didn't adopt the six-year-old boy out of the blue as the movie implies. She also didn't adopt him from an orphanage. "Snooks," as she had nicknamed the boy, was Margaret Warren's niece's son. Warren was one of Bessie's chorus girls. The boy's father had been a stranger in the night, and the mother was having trouble making ends meet since she had other children. Bessie displayed a fondness for the child, and the mother told Bessie that if she ever felt that she couldn't take care of him, she would give him to Bessie for adoption.

Bessie visited Snooks whenever she was in Macon, showering him with gifts and affection. When the boy was six, the woman made good on her promise and gave Snooks to Bessie, who then named him Jack, Jr. Though Bessie treated him like a son, years later it was discovered that the adoption had never been legal. Like in the movie, Jack warmed to the child, at least at first, and Viola was given the task of caring for the boy when Bessie was away. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Was Bessie Smith really stabbed in the stomach?

Yes. According to the account that Bessie's niece, Ruby Walker, gave to biographer Chris Albertson, the real-life events played out almost exactly as they do in the HBO Bessie movie. In real life, they were at a house party when a drunk man with gold teeth grabbed Ruby's arm and forced her to dance with him. Bessie got up from her table and confronted the man. "Who in the hell are you?" said the man. Like in the movie, it was then that Bessie brought her clenched fists down on the man's head.

The man left the room and they thought the altercation was over. When Bessie and the girls finally left the house several hours later, the man came out of nowhere and plunged a long dagger into Bessie's stomach. According to Ruby, Bessie chased him for "about three blocks" before collapsing with the dagger still in her stomach.

An ambulance rushed Bessie to the hospital. Doctors urged her to stay for a couple days to recover, but like in the movie, she refused to miss that day's show, making such a fuss that the hospital let her go roughly ten hours after the stabbing took place.

Did Bessie and Jack's marriage end after she found out that he was using her money to fund his mistress' show?

Yes, as in the HBO movie, Bessie's marriage to Jack ended after she learned that he had used her money to fund a show for his mistress, Gertrude Saunders (pictured below). -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Bessie's husband Jack used her money to fund singer Gertrude Saunders (left, 1922), who was also his mistress. Actress Chantelle Rose (right) portrays Gertrude in the movie.

Did Jack really kidnap Jack, Jr.?

Yes. When Jack, Jr. was ten, Jack Gee came and took him from Bessie's home when she wasn't there (in the movie Bessie is home and desperately tries to stop Jack). In real life, Jack dropped the boy off at the SPCC (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), and according to Jack, Jr., made up lies that Bessie had let him stay out all night and that he wouldn't go to school.

After about two weeks, the courts agreed to let Bessie take Jack, Jr. home under the terms that he would live with Bessie's sister Viola. After running away and trying to get back to Bessie, Jack, Jr. ended up with his dad and Gertrude, sleeping in the basement with her brother. Hated by Gertrude, he ran away again, was caught, and ended up in various state run homes, unable to get word to Bessie of his whereabouts. It took several years before he was reunited again with Bessie, which brought her restored happiness. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Did Betsy really rekindle a romance with bootlegger Richard Morgan?

Yes, and like in the Bessie movie, her relationship with Richard allowed her to find happiness again. Like Bessie, Richard had separated from his spouse. Bessie and Richard found themselves at rather similar places in their lives. However, not shown in the movie, Richard had three children to his wife Lucy, and the youngest child was still an infant. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Left: The real Richard Morgan and Bessie Smith stand in front of Bessie's old Packard, the vehicle in which Bessie was fatally injured. Right: Mike Epps and Queen Latifah portray the couple in the HBO Bessie movie.

What were the circumstances surrounding Bessie Smith's death?

On September 26, 1937, Bessie Smith died at age 43 in a car accident in Mississippi. The movie alludes to the tragedy but does not show it. In the dark, early-morning hours, Bessie's lover, Richard Morgan, was driving her old Packard south along U.S. Route 61 when it is believed that he misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck down the road. Tire marks suggested that Morgan swerved to avoid the truck but hit it side-on, with the brunt of the impact striking the passenger side where Bessie was sitting, likely with her arm or elbow out the window. The truck's tailgate sheared off the wooden roof of Bessie's Packard.

A Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation) and his fishing companion were the first people on the scene. Dr. Smith figured that Bessie had lost approximately half a pint of blood, and he quickly observed that her right arm was almost entirely severed at the elbow. He could see only minor head injuries and later reasoned that her death was instead due to the severe crush injuries along the right side of her body.

Roughly 25 minutes later, Dr. Smith's fishing partner returned from calling an ambulance. As they continued to wait with no sign of help, it was clear that Bessie was in shock. Realizing that they couldn't wait any longer, Dr. Smith quickly began to clear out the back seat of his car. It was then that he heard another car approaching at high speed. He flashed his lights but the young couple careening towards him did not stop. They hit the doctor's car at full speed, propelling it into Bessie's overturned Packard. The oncoming car ended up in a ditch, barely missing Bessie and Dr. Smith's friend. The young couple's injuries were not life-threatening.

The ambulances arrived and Bessie was taken to G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her right arm was amputated. She died in the morning, having never regained consciousness. -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Did Queen Latifah sing Bessie Smith's songs in the movie?

Yes. Recording artist turned actress Queen Latifah has experience singing across a variety of musical genres, including hip-hop and jazz. Not only does she sing Bessie's songs in the movie, she performed the songs for the movie's soundtrack as well. -NPR

The real Bessie Smith performs (left). Actress/singer Queen Latifah (right) performs Bessie's songs in the movie.

Is it true that Queen Latifah had been trying to get a Bessie Smith movie made for over 20 years?

Yes. "Yeah, this project came pretty early in my career as an actress," Latifah told NPR. "I was basically Queen Latifah, the hip-hop head, Queen Latifah, the rapper-turned-actress. It would have been kind of a life-changing, career-defining moment in my acting career at that time. ...but I would have had half the life experience that I could have brought to this project."

Did Bessie Smith really have a private railroad car?

Yes. Touring via railroad car was somewhat the equivalent of what tour buses are today. Like in the movie, Jack added a bit of self-promotion to the side of Bessie's private railroad car by having it emblazoned with the words, "Jack Gee presents Bessie Smith and Her Harlem Frolics of 1927." -'Bessie' by Chris Albertson

Bessie Smith Videos & the 'Bessie' Movie Trailer

Add to your knowledge of the Bessie movie true story by watching a mini Bessie Smith documentary and view the short 1929 Bessie Smith movie St. Louis Blues, her only film role.

 Bessie Smith Documentary - Mini Bio

This Bessie Smith documentary produced by The Biography Channel (Bio.) offers a short overview of Bessie's life and death. It touches on her early days with Ma Rainey to traveling the country during segregation and eventually being discovered by Columbia Records.

 Bessie Smith Movie St. Louis Blues (1929)

Watch Bessie Smith in her only movie appearance, the 1929 short film St. Louis Blues. In one of the first talkies ever made, Bessie catches her two-timing boyfriend, Jimmy, fooling around with a younger woman. To ease her pain, she sings the blues.

 Bessie HBO Movie Trailer

Queen Latifah portrays legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, who rose to fame in the 1920s and earned the nickname "The Empress of the Blues." A pioneer of the Jazz Age, Smith was also a bisexual.

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