"There's just so much importance with Bessie Smith," says Sumpter. "She was influential, just like Ma Rainey was influential and it filters through our music today."
Tika Sumpter plays Bessie Smith's lover, Lucille, in the Queen Latifah-led HBO biopic premiering this weekend. Days after it was announced she would be playing First Lady Michelle Obama in another biopic, Sumpter spoke with ESSENCE about getting inspiration from the Empress of the Blues' life story, playing a bisexual woman, and getting ready for the role of a lifetime.
How much did you know about Bessie Smith's story before this film.
The crazy thing is I didn't know anything about her but I had to sing one of her songs for a part I auditioned for a long time ago.
We have such a limited idea of Black women pioneers in music. And this film shows you that Black women musicians have been breaking boundaries for so long.
I feel like our history is so full and we haven't even scratched the surface, to be honest. There's just so much importance with Bessie. She was influential, just like Ma Rainey was influential and it filters through our music and our culture today and we don't even know it.
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We get to see how Ma Rainey mentored Bessie, and how their lives mirrored each other’s, including their bisexuality.
They weren't afraid. During that time you could go to jail for holding hands in public. People knew that about them. They loved who they loved, they wrote amazing music, and they were businesswomen. They were so many things for that time and they didn't have an institution helping them or backing them.
Your character Lucille is a Bessie’s lover. Was she real or fictionalized?
No, she's a composite of different women that Bessie was really in love with. I listened to tapes from her niece where she talks about these two women and one of them was this dancer in her troop that [Bessie] was in love with. Lucille didn't care about the glitz or the glamour, she cared about loving [Bessie]. I think she yearned for more and just tried to wait it out like, ‘Well, maybe today.’ But eventually she realized you have to love yourself enough to walk away.
We rarely see Black women bisexuals on TV like this.
That what I love about the character, it was just so gentle and intimate. It's just a gentle beautiful relationship and I do love how [director Dee Rees] shows love in so many different aspects.
Is this the first time you've played a bisexual woman?
Yes, this is my first time doing that and it was great. There's heterosexual love, there's bisexual love—for me it wasn't about, ‘Oh my God I have to play a bisexual woman.’ It was more about, ‘Okay, who is this woman that [Bessie] loves?’ For me love really is just love. I'm not judging who people decide to be with.
Was Bessie open about her relationships with women?
I think everybody knew, including her husband Jack Gee. I think her lovers were more afraid of him killing them or something. It was illegal back then… you couldn't do that stuff. In the face of all that, there was this woman was like, ‘F--- you, I'm going to do what I want.’ These woman were really bold in the face of the law.
Speaking of fierce women you were surrounded by power women on this set: Queen Latifah, Mo’nique, Khandi Alexander...
It felt like family, and there were no egos. Everybody just wanted to create a great piece to be quite honest. I remember at our first dinner I was sitting next to Mo’nique and Khandi was on the other side of Mo’nique and we were just laughing and encouraging each other. There was such a camaraderie.
You’ll be playing Michelle Obama in an upcoming biopic.
Yes, a younger Michelle Obama; when she is basically out of Harvard and working at the law firm. I’ve been researching and doing all that good stuff. We want to show another aspect of love and how these two people came together. I'm really excited about it.
Role of a lifetime?
It really is. I mean I'm just grateful that I could help bring such an amazing script to vision. I'm just excited to play it from kind of the beginning rather then what we already see now.
Bessie premieres on HBO tomorrow, May 16, at 8pm ET.