I Ain’t Done Runnin’ Around

by Athenais Maeve

HBO's Biopic Bessie premieres this Saturday

Two decades in the making, HBO's Bessie premieres tonight. The biopic follows the famed blues and jazz singer Bessie Smith through her life, from growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee to her untimely death when she was only 43. We caught up with Executive Producer Shelby Stone.

Can you describe your role in the creation of Bessie?

When I started at Flavor Unit, HBO had just picked up the rights for the film.  So I was very lucky to be involved from soup to nuts—through every draft of the script and when Dee Rees came on board the project I worked closely with her on casting, pre-production, production and post. It’s been a dream come true.

Why were you drawn to this project?

I was drawn for two overwhelming reasons: the amazing talent that is Queen Latifah, and the remarkable force of nature that was Bessie Smith. Bessie lived her life and ran her career her way. Her songs reflected the unvarnished truths of her life.  I loved that and wanted to be a part of celebrating her life and her music.  And no one else could play all the highs, lows and artistry but the Queen herself!

Is there one part of Bessie Smith's life that you were surprised to learn?

I’ve heard it said that heart is the capacity to go on after you’ve been hurt.  She endured a world of pain & hardship, any part of which might have crushed a lot of people. Bessie had more heart than I’d ever imagined and that surprised me.

Is there one thing that you wish most people knew about Bessie Smith?

We’re all so accustomed to artists being groomed, polished and packaged, not Bessie. She did it her way and didn’t change for anything or anyone.

Why was Queen Latifah chosen for the eponymous role?

Richard & Lili Fini Zanuck, the Oscar winning producing husband & wife team, were the ones who approached Queen Latifah over 20 years ago.  Lili saw her on an MTV interview after one of her music videos played, tracked her down and had her come to Los Angeles for a screen test. Queen Latifah was 22, had never heard of Bessie, was just starting her acting career and killed it.

Can you describe a moment in Queen Latifah's performance that surprised you?

There were two: the breakup battle with Jack Gee and the kidnapping scene...Latifah went to it full throttle.  We were all in tears by the time the scenes were done.

What's next?

We have so many exciting projects in development, you never know what will get green lit next!