*In a year in which television’s annual award derby The Emmys took tremendous effort to recognize racial and cultural “diversity,” HBO’s presentation of “Bessie” – a made-for-television movie about the life and legacy of pioneering blues singer Bessie Smith – won four of the twelve awards for which it was nominated.
For the individual winners this was a night to remember. For Beverly Ann Clarke – granddaughter of Bessie Smith and her closest living relative – it was a particularly sweet victory following decades spent trying to tell the story.
Clarke, who will be 75 years young come December, states:
“I am extremely happy for the recognition ‘Bessie’ earned at the Emmys this year, especially for Outstanding Television Movie.
“I was disappointed that Queen Latifah didn’t win Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series (though as an Executive Producer via her company Flavor Unit Entertainment, Latifah is among the seven recipients for Outstanding Television Movie). She did an excellent job as did the entire cast.”
(Note: Mo’Nique as “Ma Rainey” and Michael Kenneth Williams as Clarke’s grandfather “Jack Gee” were also nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress and Outstanding Supporting Actor, respectively).
Though Clarke was not involved in the production of “Bessie,” as the sole living Smith family member, she was looked to for key details and an over-all thumbs-up. Clarke shares:
“I spoke with executive producers at HBO Films in association with Flavor Unit Entertainment and The Zanuck Company.
“Their concern was that I was satisfied. I had input based on the things my father (John “Jack” Gee, Jr.) told me about my grandmother.
“He always said I was just like her…as far as family and morals. When I’d chew him out about things he was doing I didn’t approve of, he’d say, ‘Aww, you’re just like mama.’ Bessie worshipped my father and was very big on family once she had her own.”
After attending the New York premier before its debut prime time Saturday night May 16 telecast, Clarke was thrilled with the finished work. And Sunday night at the Emmy after party held at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, Clarke received kudos from African American Emmy winners Viola Davis and Regina King on behalf of her grandmother.
Actress Khandi Alexander, who played Bessie’s older sister “Viola” in the movie, passionately reiterated to Clarke that night:
“We all owe Bessie a debt of gratitude for opening the door for us.”
Meanwhile, The Estate of Bessie Smith has plans for future works to further Bessie’s legacy, including a Broadway musical that will be followed by a theatrical film.
Lindsay Guion, who on the night of the red carpet premier was promoted by Clarke from Administrator to Head of the estate via his company Guion Partners, shares:
“It has been an honor to represent the legacy of Bessie Smith over the last four years.
I’m so proud of the manner in which Richard D. Zanuck Productions, HBO Films and the estate worked in concert to make this happen. The Bessie Smith story is music history, Black history and history period…all in one.”
In addition to the Outstanding Television Movie Emmy, “Bessie” won Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie (to Director of Photography Jeffrey Jur), Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Music Special (Original Dramatic Score by Rachel Portman), and Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie (Jim Emswiller, Roberto Fernandez, Damian Volpe, Ed Cherney and Evyen J. Klean).
Now Beverly Ann Clarke is looking forward to potential NAACP Image Awards and Golden Globe Awards for “Bessie” in the near future.
Greater than any award is the renewed interest and, for many, first time recognition and awareness of Bessie Smith – the legendary blues singer who squashed the competition as the bestselling music artist in the `20s and `30s. Her fiery live performances and 160 recordings for Columbia Records – including “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer” – earned her the title “Empress of The Blues.”
However, the general public knew little of the sad but colorful life that made her songs – which she wrote – so rich with feeling. Bessie’s is a fierce Black woman’s story of low life to high living, marriage and lovers (male and female), a famous run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, shrewd business dealings and, through it all, a desperate search for love and to be loved.
“Bessie” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 1st, pleasing Clarke to no end.
“For 40 years I’ve tried to get Bessie’s story told, Clarke concludes. “And before that, my father and his attorneys tried. We were always told there was no money in it. The timing was right in 2015 and worth the long-long wait.
The movie is fantastic! All of the actors (including Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Oliver Platt and Charles S. Dutton) did a wonderful job but Queen Latifah nailed Bessie to a tee. When she was singing, she was giving Bessie back to me for an hour and 55 minutes – a proud moment of many more to come.”