Time and again we read or hear about the development of a biographical motion picture about a figure in African American history whose story we are thrilled to see finally making it to the “big screen” only for the rug to be pulled out from under the project for one reason or another. Well, GPI the developers of a long overdue movie on the life of colorful and pioneering blues singer Bessie Smith – known and respected worldwide as “The Empress of Blues” – are seeing to it that such disappointments do not happen.
Bessie Smith was a pioneer not only for Black recording artists but for the American recording industry as a whole. Blessed with a powerful voice that cut through the shellac and static of early recording techniques and with a sass that delighted folks of all persuasions, The Empress recorded 160 sides for Columbia Records in the `20s and `30s that transcended the realms of Blues music and “race records.” Her biggest hits included “Downhearted Blues” (1923), “Empty Bed Blues” (1928) and “St. Louis Blues” (1925) which she later reprised on the big screen in the two-reeler Black cast film in 1929 (with Fletcher Henderson’s band, a chorus and strings – highly unusual and grand for the time). Beyond her artistry, Bessie Smith is a fascinating figure for the struggles she endured as a woman – a Black woman – her marriage, her lovers (male and female), her fierce work ethic, her legendary run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, her business dealings and more – all of which will play well in today’s marketplace as folks will see “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
The Empress of Blues will explore Bessie Smith’s journey from humble orphan to national singing sensation, entrepreneur and pioneering iconoclast, with an emphasis on Bessie’s own search for satisfaction and self-determination as a Black woman in the racist and sexist post-Reconstruction US. Her story is not just the story of another destitute orphan rising from rags to riches, it is a story about the underlying human struggle to define oneself and find joy. It is an amalgam of a biopic drama, documentary and musical memoir that eulogizes an American icon, explores an era of American history and probes the psychological imprint of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.
Screenwriter James L. White – the man who wrote the Oscar winning film “Ray” which brought Ray Charles’ story to an international audience and who was hand-selected to helm Bessie’s story – states, “When the representatives from Bessie Smiths’ estate came to me last November, I was more than interested. For me, this type of storytelling – of Black history – is something I treasure…a necessity. If we don’t do it, we can’t expect others to take it on. Plus the opportunity to do a story on a Black female with the iconic status of Bessie Smith was impossible to resist. I grew up in the South and somewhat know the blues. But I didn’t know what I know having read books. I look forward to constructing the script. The complexity of Bessie is going to surprise people. She’s multi-layered and three-dimensional from the human level. As a woman – not just Black – it’s going to be a very good story. Bessie is known as the savior of Columbia Records. Her biggest audience was segregated audiences in the South – White folks could not get enough of her!”
Key to getting this film on a fast track and with creative cross-marketing is Lindsay Guion, a man heretofore known for managing recording artists – at one time including D’Angelo. Having reached a point in his life and career, Guion began considering a higher calling for his gifts. “I remembered seeing something at Harvard about finding purpose which triggered a desire that when my kids look back they see that their dad was involved in a legacy. Coincidentally, a neighbor approached me saying that the estate of the great Blues singer Bessie Smith had been trying in vain to connect the dots for a film project that would bring awareness of this woman to a younger generation. Initially I wasn’t impressed but I took a second look and realized that because Bessie Smith succeeded in her day is the reason why Black music – R&B and Rock & Roll—is so popular today. That deeply impacted me.”
Guion continues, “I met with the head of the estate at her home in Maryland, then I hopped on a plane from my home in DC to Hollywood and as soon as I touched down, I hired an associate to start creating buzz about this project. I found out that Bessie first became professionally involved in show business in 1912 which makes this year her centennial anniversary of that. She passed 75 years ago – another anniversary – and we got our private funding to begin work on this project on June 1st, the first day of Black Music Month. I think we’re on the right path.”
Big plans are afoot for rolling out Bessie’s story. For the director’s chair, Guion has reached out to Bill Duke, Forrest Whittaker and Denzel Washington. For the casting, Guion will approach Jill Scott to play Bessie Smith, Queen Latifah to play her blues predecessor Ma Rainey, Erykah Badu to play ‘Viola’ (the woman who introduced Bessie to music), Lenny Kravitz to play husband ‘Jack’ and Kevin Spacey to play the record executive that brought her to Columbia. While negotiations are still in progress, Guion has high confidence in the sincere interest all have shared in being a part of this historical project. Guion enthuses, “Paul Sandberg and Lionel Ball are our producers. And with ‘Jimmy’ (James L. White) already on board as our writer, I am sure he will be giving this film the Academy Award worthy polish it so richly deserves.”
A major part of the pre-promotion plan will be a series of musical recording and concert projects leading up to and involving the film. Guion’s vision includes no less than three albums – an all-star “Inspired by” project, a film soundtrack as well as a film score. “Doing an inspired by album first will help market the project,’ Guion asserts. “We have a wish list…We’re going for everyone from Beyonce’, Erykah, Jill Scott and Latifah to Adele, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, and maybe a vintage Janis Joplin license. We’d like to include living matriarchs of this music (like Bettye Everett and Barbra Morrison). There have also been male artists inspired by her work. We’re taking a look at it all with the intention of launching with a major tribute concert. We want to make this album an event. Since this album will be using artists from several genres at all of the major labels, I’m also looking into the possibility of multiple distributors like the various artists ‘Now’ compilations.”
GPI is the sole sanctioned entity to bring Bessie Smith’s story to the public, a powerful honor and privilege that Guion does not take lightly. “We’re being very strategic about who we attach to the project,” he assures, “and will surround ourselves with only the very best people for this project. Representing the estate, I was able to come in at highest level – as a producer/executive producer, overseeing every facet from the music to the movie to even a possible Broadway production down the road. Bessie Smith’s heiress – Beverly Clarke – is in her 70’s and wants to see this all happen in her lifetime. I’ve gotten more accomplished in the six months I’ve been on this than anyone she’s had in the past. We share the same vision and I will not let her down!”
Beverly Clarke, Bessie Smith’s granddaughter and estate trustee, says in a prepared statement: “The story should’ve been told long ago, but the time is now. I’m ready for it to be brought to the big screen, so that the world knows the kind of entertainer Bessie Smith was; the extraordinary life she led, the struggles she endured, and the wonderful person she was.”
Burning the midnight oil deep in research mode and rewriting the original treatment, screenwriter James L. White likens the work upon which he is endeavoring as a mission. For one, all of his work is important to him because his name is attached to it– a name he shares with deep roots from his past. “I was named after my grandfather James Thomas White—a man who worked very hard in small town in Kentucky but nobody knew his name. We need to know our stories…our kids need to know our stories! When I walked into the theatre to see ‘The Godfather,’ I didn’t know anything about the ties of Italian families. Two hours later, we all condoned mass murder because we had a deeper understanding. If Hollywood could do that for them then we can do the same for our stories.”
“What I seek to do as a writer is to write stories and make movies about people of color as characters not caricatures—that make us human. Bessie’s story is a great human story that all people can sit in the theater and relate to.”