Director Dee Rees On Bessie Smith's Sexuality And The Open Experimentation Of 1920s Black Artists

04/30/2015 12:02 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

HBO's new biopic "Bessie," which stars Queen Latifah, chronicles the life of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith -- from her rise to fame to the expression of her sexuality.

The film's director Dee Rees stopped by HuffPost Live on Wednesday and explained how she portrayed Smith's queer identity through Tika Sumpter's character Lucille, one of Smith's love interests in the film.

"Lucille is a composite character, kind of a made-up character. I knew that Bessie had had relationships with both men and women, and I wanted to show her as a woman who took humanity on a case-by-case basis. She loved who she wanted to love," Rees told host Nancy Redd.

Rees also discussed the prevalence of queer female artists in the 1920s, like singer Gladys Bentley and comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley, who who dressed in typically masculine clothes, and were open about their relationships with women. As Rees put it, embracing a fluid sexuality was a "known thing" among such artists at the time. In fact, blues singers were not afraid to use music to face issues of sexuality head on.

"People, especially entertainers, I think they exhibited this freedom that really empowered them. ... They all have lyrics about gay and lesbian people," she said. "It's interesting because I feel like maybe in some ways they were more freer with that expression back then than they are even now."

The historical context of the time may have helped fuel the openness among LGBT African Americans -- an idea that Angela Davis suggested in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. While black Americans still grappled with oppression within a multitude of arenas in the early 1900s, the abolition of slavery finally allowed them to have control of their sexual relationships, Rees said.

It's post emancipation, you know. Things [hadn't] really changed for black people, but the two things people did have now were your sexual freedom and geographic mobility. And so I think people were really harnessing the two things that they did have. So economically, things were still depressed. Socially, things were still depressed, but you have freedom of who you love and freedom over where you go -- or more than you used to. And so I think it was kind of representative of the times that they lived and having these new liberties. They wanted to exercise them to the fullest.

Watch the full HuffPost Live conversation with "Bessie" director Dee Rees here.

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