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Queen Latifah in Bessie: See her screen-test for the role 23 years ago

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Queen Latifah, 45, first auditioned for the lead role in Bessie in 1992.

The film, bouncing around from one writer to the next, didn’t premiere on HBO until May 16 of this year. In the more than two decades that passed, Queen Latifah managed to develop her own entertainment empire and strengthen the similarities between herself and Smith.

“I definitely feel I have experienced a lot more of life than I did 22 years ago,” Latifah says in this exclusive clip that features part of her 1992 screen test and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the film. “I had no idea our lives would parallel in certain ways that would allow me to really tap into things that I know she probably felt.”

Bessie Smith, nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” dominated the genre in the ‘20s and ‘30s and was at one point the highest-paid black entertainer. Bessie shows Smith’s struggle to build her empire from her humble beginnings in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She gained notoriety for her sexuality as well as her music — the biopic features her husband as well as her girlfriend and male lover. She was a busy woman. Smith died in a car crash in 1937 at age 43. 

Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Jack Gee, says he’s excited to be working with Latifah on this project at this point in their lives.

“How many years later, how many funerals, how many jailhouse visits, how many drug-addicted sad stories that have come out of the clique that she and I ran in?” Williams asks in the video. “I can’t tell you how much this project means to me.”

Bessie is now available on HBO GO. The DVD and Blu-ray — where you can watch the above feature titled “Bessie: A Creative Journey” in full — is available Tuesday.  

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