Photo Credit: Getty Images (L-R: Queen Latifah, Lili Fini Zanuck, Shelby Stone, Dee Rees)
The scene with the reverse paper bag test is one of Bessie’s finest moments, as it encompasses all that makes the HBO film so wonderful. There’s Queen Latifah in all her glory, finally setting up her own tour and making sure everyone knows who’s boss. There’s the hilarity when she lets down one of the hopefuls auditioning—“You must be darker than the bag to be in my show!” After all, Bessie is an incredibly funny movie at times. And there’s the whole inversion of the brown paper bag test. Where Bessie Smith grew up in a world that demanded black women performing back-up be lighter than a brown paper bag, Bessie makes up a new rule that gives her back some agency and sets a different tone (literally and figuratively) for her showcase. Bessie was, in no way, your average blues performer and for that reason Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard D. Zanuck knew they couldn’t just deliver your average black-performer-who-grew-up-poor-and-made-it-big biopic. The familiar story of a talented woman done in by a man (or many men), or childhood tragedies, or her own celebrity was not Bessie’s story—she wasn’t lighter than a brown paper bag, and, thankfully, wasn’t presented as such.
It may have taken 20 years to make it, but when Bessie finally arrived, she came, she saw and she conquered. The HBO film has garnered 12 well-deserved Emmy nominations, with Queen Latifah, co-stars Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo’Nique, and director Dee Rees all contenders in this year’s race.
Zanuck, the Academy Award-winning producer of Driving Miss Daisy and Cocoon is heading for another big year herself with the success of Bessie and an Eric Claption documentary in the works. Paste caught up with her to talk about her start in film, pegging Latifah for Bessie when she was only 19 years old, and the long road to one of the most entertaining and important films of the year.
Paste: So, you were born in Massachusetts, but raised throughout Europe. Would you say your upbringing had an eventual impact on your decision to work in film?
Zanuck: My father was in the military, so my upbringing had a big impact on certain things. For example, I can be the new kid very easily. Given my childhood, one thing about the business that worked for me is that it’s very easy for me to live somewhere else for six months. I had that sort of flexibility, and that works for a lot of what I do.
When I came [to LA] I was 23-years-old. I was a huge film buff, but I didn’t really think I was going to get a job here. I wanted to be an editor, so I wasn’t going for the golden ring. But I ended up here anyway. I met my husband about six or seven months after I got here, and we got married four months later.
Paste: This project is 22 years in the making. When you first brought Queen Latifah in for a test she was only 19, and this was before her big film career, before Chicago.
Zanuck: Yes, this was way before she even had her MTV show. She had been on MTV as an artist when I saw her.
Paste: How did she strike you then as Bessie? Would you say that time gave her a chance to grow into this great character?
Zanuck: She said time helped, but she did a screen test with us when we brought her. And she was really, really good. I’m sure time did help, but she was pretty incredible when she was 19. One thing that made me suggest that we bring her out is that Bessie does a lot of things, but nobody makes Bessie do anything. That was the thing that attracted me to the material. You had this woman who has this unbelievable life, but there wasn’t some husband beating her. She may have gotten drunk, she may have gotten into fights, but whatever she did, it was her choice, Nobody had a stronger personality than she did, to influence her. And that’s not the way stories about women entertainers usually are. There’s usually some terrible thing that happens from the man they fall in love with.
So to see this young woman in Queen Latifah—even to call herself “queen”—that takes a lot to do that. You better be able to back that up. And she did.
Paste: Dee Rees is a new name for some of us. Can you talk about how she became attached to the project, and what she brought to this story?
Zanuck: We had it for about eight years in development at HBO. We couldn’t get a draft that we agreed on, and Dee Rees had just done Pariah. She was on their radar at HBO, and Queen Latifah’s people were very familiar with her. So her name came up, she read the material and we had a good meeting. We had a very good meeting. And she did an incredible job on Pariah.
Paste: In another interview you said that there was not so much resistance to the focus on Bessie’s sex life with the early drafts, but there might have been concerns about this basically being an all-black cast.
Zanuck: Yes, but we’re talking about 22 years ago.
Paste: I thought that was interesting, in part because True Detective director Cary Fukunaga has a film coming out, and he made it a point to say that this story is set in Africa, filmed in Ghana, and has no white people in it. Can you talk a little about this resistance to telling stories where people of color fill out the entire cast?
Zanuck: Well the great thing about HBO is that they are taking on these wonderful movies that can’t get made in studios. We saw the success of Behind the Candelabra, and without HBO—and of course you had Steven Soderbergh and Mike Nichols and Matt Damon—but without that provider, you wouldn’t see it. That’s the same thing with Bessie. I don’t think the climate now—I don’t think you could get it made theatrically. But I don’t think you could get Driving Miss Daisy made either. There’ s just not a lot of choice at the box office, so what they’re going to make will be much narrower in range.
Paste: I remember being excited about Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey, but I still wasn’t prepared for how great she was alongside Latifah. What did you see in her work that made you think she’d be a good fit?
Zanuck: Mo’Nique really kills it when she’s on the screen. In everything. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her in Precious, and I was very very surprised at how she got to that place in terms of performance. When you can get there, that is very impressive. Because when you have to play a character like that, you don’t pass judgement. As an actor, you think [the character] has just cause. So it’s not about getting to the evil part of you, it’s about getting to the part of you that feels like you have every reason to feel how you feel about the situation. That is a very difficult, multi-layered thing to do. And it was very hard to watch—besides her being very violent, she was mean. So Ma Rainey was like a walk in the park! (laughs) With Ma Rainey she didn’t have to go to any of those places.
Paste: For years you had a very close work partner in your husband Richard. Are there little lessons or memories from all those years together that you find yourself pulling on in your work now?
Zanuck: Not in my work so much, but in my [personal] life. All those years, of course I loved having him to always run something by, but I miss that much more in my personal life.
For me the hardest part is holding on. As time goes on memories do become a little more elusive, and I realize that that’s what people call getting better—when they say “you get on with it.” But that’s not better to me. That’s not better at all! I would rather have the pain be as real as it was, because there’s a closer connection. So all of those clichés have been of no help to me (laughs).
Paste: I can understand that.
Zanuck: It’s been three years, and I will [miss him] forever. It’s hard. And it means a lot to me that he’s nominated for the Emmy—that really means everything to me.
Paste: Absolutely, and I’m happy for you both. What’s next for you? Are there any other projects in the works that we should know about?
Zanuck: Yes, I’m going to work on a documentary on Eric Claption. We’re doing that in the UK, probably starting in September. But I have to say, I don’t know how much work I would have continued to do, without Bessie getting made. HBO, they were very supportive in ever way. The rollout on the movie is one of the best things I’ve ever seen done. Without that—and then the Critic’s Choice Awards, and the review and the nominations—that has really encouraged me to go back to work. I was really coasting along. I had a few projects here and there, but I wasn’t actively pursuing anything. This has been very encouraging for me. When it’s been a long time, and then you do something like this, and your work is well-received; it’s really created a change in my life.
Paste: I’m so glad it happened. This was one of my favorite films of the year, so I’m excited for more of your work. Thanks so much for this.
Zanuck: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon, Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.