HBO’s ‘Bessie,’ With Queen Latifah, Is Ideal Awards Bait

HBO has just released the trailer for its next big TV movie that sees the premium network courting awards ceremonies again after last year’s highly acclaimed film The Normal Heart. HBO is already well established as the premier network for the best television being made and has been for many years, but now it wants to extend that high-quality filmmaking into television movies, as well. This could end up being a pretty disruptive move, as fewer people go to see movies in theaters at all, so the big studios releasing their films there might have less of a grip on the film industry as a whole.

The trailer for the Bessie Smith biopic Bessie was just released, with Oscar nominee Queen Latifah starring in the lead role of the iconic jazz and blues singer. Latifah picked up an Oscar nod for another musical role, her part as Big Mama Morton in Chicago, so we already know she has the pipes to do a bang-up job imitating Smith. Oscar winner Mo’Nique will portray Bessie Smith’s mentor, the legendary Ma Rainey. Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, and Mike Epps are in the supporting cast.

Smith’s story has all the dramatic potential necessary for the perfect music biopic. The singer was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and went on to become one of the most influential performers of the ‘20s and ‘30s. She overcame all the obstacles of being black, a woman, poor, and bisexual during this time period to establish herself as one of the best performers in the country. The Great Depression and the rise of talkies ended her career’s success abruptly during the mid-1930s, but she never stopped performing. Smith died at age 43 in a car accident on Highway 61.

With Latifah’s physical resemblance to the blues singer, plus her history in singing jazz, the biopic looks promising. Based on the trailer, it looks as though the movie will provide plenty of high drama while telling a story many are unfamiliar with, as well as giving a great actress the chance to show off her many talents. If this weren’t being released by HBO, it’d have Oscar contender written all over it, which just goes to show the level of quality the network is going for in its TV movies.

HBO has certainly established its movies as a desirable place for A-list actors to work. Last year’s film The Normal Heart starred Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, and Taylor Kitsch, another cast that could easily be in a studio blockbuster. That film was about a gay writer and activist, played by Ruffalo, in New York City during the 1980s who strove to inform the gay community about the growing AIDS crisis. The movie won a Golden Globe for Bomer, as well as an Emmy for outstanding television movie and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Ruffalo, according to IMDb.

HBO measures prestige in awards wins, and it looks like it has cooked up a movie that will take home trophies with Bessie. Latifah looks and sounds as though she was born to play Bessie Smith. As long as the film avoids overwrought music biopic cliches, Bessie looks like it will be a treat for movie fans, music fans, and HBO.

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS

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