is an HBO TV film about legendary American blues singer Bessie Smith , and focuses on her transformation as a struggling young singer into "The Empress of the Blues". The film is directed by Dee Rees , with a screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Queen Latifah stars as Smith, and supporting roles are played by Michael Kenneth Williams as Smith's first husband Jack Gee, and Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey . The film premiered on May 16, 2015.
Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is a young singer from Chattanooga, Tennessee . She and her siblings are orphaned when their parents, William and Laura, die, leaving their oldest sister, Viola (Khandi Alexander), to raise them. Viola is stern and Bessie's childhood is unhappy. She along with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) scrape by working for local vaudeville shows. Her stage ambitions are frustrated by producers unwilling to feature dark-skinned black women in their shows. Bessie sneaks onto traveling performer Ma Rainey 's (Mo'Nique) train compartment and asks to join her show. Ma Rainey takes Bessie under her wing and helps her develop her abilities until Bessie's popularity causes a schism between the two women. Bessie leaves with Clarence to start her own show.
In addition to her lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Bessie begins a tumultuous relationship with Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), a security guard who later becomes her husband and manager. After a humiliating rejection from the newly formed Black Swan Records , Jack manages to get Bessie a record deal with Columbia Records . Immense success follows, though Bessie encounters difficulties, including a stabbing attack after a show in her hometown, racism from white guests during an affluent party, and an attack during her show by the Ku Klux Klan , whom she courageously chases off. Eventually, Bessie reconciles with Viola, and moves her and all of her siblings into a mansion to live with her. The move causes additional tension with Jack, and Bessie pushes him further by adopting a young boy, whom she names Jack Jr., as their son. Eventually, Lucille leaves Bessie in order to have her own life. Despite her own affair with bootlegger Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), Bessie is infuriated upon discovering that Jack is bankrolling his mistress, up and coming performer Gertrude Saunders. After a violent quarrel, Jack leaves her. Bessie spirals into depression and alcohol. Jack returns, kidnapping Jack Jr. with the assistance of Viola, and takes him to live with him, contending that Bessie is an unfit mother.
During the Great Depression , Bessie's fortune dissolves, and she and Clarence move into a small apartment. Bessie reconciles with Ma Rainey and takes some time to recuperate from her personal losses. Eventually, she accepts Richard's love for her and the two begin a relationship. After hearing Lucille Bogan 's licentious hit song "Til the Cows Come Home", Bessie performs once again and meets a young John Hammond who wishes to produce her comeback tour. Bessie comeback is a success and she later reflects on her life while discussing the future with Richard.