Following an Oscar season where Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) received wide interest for a 12-year shooting schedule, Bessie (2015) rode the waves of the “long production” schtick by billing itself a film “22 years in the making.” That tagline doesn’t mean the film took 22 years to physically create, but it does refer to the fact it took 22 years for the film to be produced after being purchased and lightly cast in the early 1990s.
In fact, a much-younger Queen Latifah was pegged to play Bessie Smith back in the early 1990s, before anyone was terribly aware of her acting ability, during the time when her career was still focused on rap music. In some ways, the wait was a good thing. Queen Latifah may not have been able to do the part as much justice in 1993 as she did now - and audiences wouldn’t have been as prepared to respect her as a credible actor. We didn’t yet have acts like 2002’s Chicago or 2012’s Joyful Noise to clue us into what a powerful combination talent she can be.
So what took 22 years?
A screenplay of Bessie was written by Horton Foote in the early 90s for Columbia Pictures. At the time, Columbia was undergoing some financial/legal issues and the project was shuttered. Foote purchased the screenplay back from Columbia. Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck showed interest in producing the film at that time, and Queen Latifah was eyed to star in the production, but the film stalled when financing wasn’t obtained. Horton Foote died back in 2009, and the screenplay became the property of his daughter, Hallie Foote. She took it back to the Zanucks (who had remained interested in the film) and HBO, who finally produced it into a film that was “22 years in the making.”