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Queen Latifah (born Dana Elaine Owens)
Born: March 18, 1970
Newark, New Jersey, USA
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)
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
WATCHBessie 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.
WATCHBessie 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.
WATCHBessie 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.