Bessie tells the story of the singer's transformation from a struggling young singer into "The Empress of the Blues" responsible for the chart-topping hit, "Downhearted Blues." The film will also touch on Smith's personal trials, which reportedly included an affair with fellow blues singer Ma Rainey and bouts with drinking leading to the singer's decline during the Great Depression.
The movie is a raw, gritty look at stardom during a time when the U.S. was still segregated, giving Latifah a chance to bare her soul in her most vulnerable role yet. The vulnerability is one of the things that drew her to the script, which even called for a nude scene in front of a mirror.
"When you accept a role, you have to accept what's in the script," Latifah said. "It's my body, but it's really about what Bessie was going through and I think it's one of the most important parts of the film."
Latifah also frankly plays Bessie's life of loving both men and women.
"She was so forward thinking," Latifah said. "The interesting thing about this version of Bessie's story is that it does not have to define itself based on these things. These are just part of her journey. It's not heavy handed. We're not like, 'Hey! You're girlfriend. And here's your boyfriend, and here's your husband. And look! You've got a girlfriend and a husband.' It's just part of who she is."