Living out loud: Queen Latifah and Black queer television production

by Lauren Herold

At the 2016 GLAAD Media Awards, Dee Rees’ biopic Bessie (HBO, 2015) won the award for Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series. Queen Latifah, who plays bisexual[1] [open endnotes in new window] Empress of Blues Bessie Smith in the titular role, received the award on stage on behalf of the film. Latifah begins her acceptance speech by thanking GLAAD, her production team, Rees, the cast, and HBO for their support of the project. She continues:

“When I’m standing here and I receive something like this, I really think about my cousins, and my aunts, and my family members who are, uh, what’s the words again, the letters again? I’m just playing. My cousins who are gay, who are lesbians, who are questioning, who raised me, who taught me to be who I am, the strong woman you see standing in front of you today. I want to dedicate this to my aunt Lita, who was my inspiration for a character named Cleo I played in Set it Off. She was also my inspiration for my life. She taught me how to really be a loved person. I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t be able to just live her life in every aspect of her life.”[2]

Queen Latifah, a prolific African American actress, hip-hop artist, media producer, and talk show host, has been dogged by rumors and speculation about her sexuality for decades. In this speech, Latifah feigns unfamiliarity with the meaning of the letters in the LGBTQ acronym, but goes on to dedicate the award to her aunt, whose life inspired her role as an iconic butch lesbian character in Set if Off (1995). Latifah affirms that her aunt serves as an inspiration in her daily life as well, but makes no reference to specificities of her personal life beyond this. Yet a 2012 appearance at a gay pride festival, as well as numerous paparazzi photographs of Latifah with female partners, have all but “confirmed” Latifah’s lesbian identity for the press and for many of her fans.[3] Latifah herself has never confirmed or denied the rumors—she is notoriously private about the romantic and sexual details of her life. As exemplified in her speech at the GLAAD Awards, Latifah frequently expresses support for LGBTQ rights but consistently uses evasive language when referring to any personal relationship to the community.

This article considers Queen Latifah’s role as an influential producer in the contemporary film and television industry, and in particular her participation in a variety of television projects that evoke the experiences of LGBTQ people. Despite the fact the Latifah is a prolific producer and actress, there is little scholarship dedicated to an analysis of her work.[4] Black female stardom is undertheorized. As Miriam Petty argues,

“the layered and polysemic significance of Black performers…have often been discounted and dismissed as marginal.”[5]

The dearth in media studies scholarship about Latifah is in part symptomatic of a larger gap in the field—media studies has yet to account for the careers of Black women in television production.[6] Petty suggests that it requires “fundamental shifts in perspective and framing” to explore how racial and gender ideologies impact the historical significance of African American film stars.[7] Centering Latifah’s film and television work requires a similar reframing, a shift in perspective that acknowledges her influence in media production.

I draw upon work in production studies to analyze Latifah’s contributions to her LGBTQ media projects, specifically her starring roles in Bessie and NBC’s 2015 televised production The Wiz Live!.As Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Caldwell argue, production studies investigates “the lived realities of people involved in media production as the subjects for theorizing production as culture.”[8] This approach asks,

“How do media producers represent themselves given the paradoxical importance of media in society? How do we, as researchers, then represent those varied and contested representations?”[9]

Production studies looks both to the lived experiences of producers as well as the industry and the texts themselves to understand how meaning is produced in a cultural object.

NBC’s 2015 live televised musical production, The Wiz Live!, cast Latifah as the Wiz, a role typically given to male actors.

Because Latifah lives much of her life outside of the public eye, it is difficult to argue that her lived experiences shape her queer projects. The work of out LGBTQ media creators is central to queer production studies. Alfred Martin asserts,

“queer production studies makes space for queers to use entrepreneurial methods to create media that reflect their experiences…queer production studies is invested in the many facets of queer production and the production of queerness.”[10]

For queer production studies in particular, it is essential to analyze how the genders and sexualities of particular producers inform the production process as well as how LGBTQ identities are produced via particular industrial and cultural practices. Patricia White’s analysis of the career of Black lesbian film and television producer Angela Robinson provides a good example. Exploring Robinson’s varied projects, White examines how Robinson “includes queer and black subcultural styles and sensibilities in her mainstream work through…genre codes and references.”[11] Robinson’s outness is central to the argument of this piece—in fact, it is central to all of the essays in the anthology Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, in which the chapter is published. Queen Latifah is absent from this anthology, and other work in queer production studies, because she avoids identifying herself within the queer community. I suggest here that the emphasis on outness in queer production studies risks neglecting the cultural significance of queer work by more private creators. More significantly, the emphasis on out LGBTQ creators in this scholarship risks reinscribing what Eve Sedgwick calls the “epistemology of the closet,” which implicitly suggests that we must come to know the sexuality of these producers in order to analyze their work.[12]

Like many scholars, I take seriously the political and ethical implications of “outing” a celebrity, and so I make no argument with regard to Latifah’s sexuality. As Jimmy Draper argues, news and entertainment media often applies a “lens of detection” to sexually ambiguous celebrities, a lens which encourages audiences “to make sense of nonnormative performances of self through hegemonic gender norms” and therefore “limits the possibilities for media representations to challenge…dominant notions of sexuality.”[13] Similarly, Lynne Joyrich argues that a “hermeneutic of suspicion” structures narratives of televisual (homo)sexuality, inviting viewers to “know” the queerness of a character via systems of detection that reinforce the oppressive logic of the closet.[14] C. Riley Snorton extends these analyses to racialized celebrities, asserting that African American celebrity sexuality exists within a “‘glass closet’…marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle, and speculation.”[15] Snorton holds that the closet is a “racist technology” that serves a regulatory function by reproducing the hypervisibility and hypersexualization of Black people.[16] To resist the lens of detection, a hermeneutic of suspicion, and the racist technology of the closet, I suggest that a celebrity’s engagement queer cultural work warrants analysis whether or not the individual is publicly out as LGBTQ.

I first review Latifah’s career and trace scholarly analysis of her music to demonstrate that critical attention to her media projects is currently lacking. I describe the production histories of both Bessie and The Wiz Live!, detailing Latifah’s textual and extra-textual commitments to these projects as producer and/or star. I offer close readings of scenes from both Bessie and The Wiz Live!, providing a queer reading of Latifah’s performances in each. I argue that Latifah’s labor as star and/or producer demonstrates her commitment and contribution to Black queer cultural production. I finally discuss Latifah’s privacy in relation to Ralina Joseph’s concept of “strategic ambiguity,” which identifies how Black women media makers carefully navigate sexism and racism in the industry. Employing the tools of strategic ambiguity, Latifah is able to evade gendered and racialized homophobia and maintain her market appeal to wide audiences, while simultaneously investing and starring in queer projects. Queen Latifah’s evasiveness about her sexuality has likely stymied analysis of her queer cultural production, but an analysis of her career offers new insights into the study of LGBTQ television. It illuminates how stars can incorporate subcultural references into their work via production and performance, infusing commercial television projects with Black and queer history, community, and culture. I conclude by suggesting that queer media studies scholars resist reinscribing the epistemology of the closet in our analyses. By applying concepts like strategic ambiguity to the lives of more private media producers, we can discuss their queer labor without relying on a public performance of non-normative sexuality in order to do so.

Queen Latifah: hip-hop artist, television producer,
and queer media creator?

Born Dana Owens in Newark, New Jersey, Queen Latifah has been in the public eye since she released her first album All Hail the Queen in 1989 featuring her hit single “Ladies First.” A successful entrepreneur and businesswoman, Latifah has produced and/or starred in over 100 films and television shows over the past 30 years.[17]

Queen Latifah has been a prominent figure in commercial film and television production for the past 30 years, starring in and producing a wide variety of projects, yet much of her work has yet to be accounted for in media studies scholarship.

This includes her breakout role on television as Khadijah James in Fox’s Living Single (1993-1998) and her prominence in cinema that caters to the Black film market such as Beauty Shop (2005), as well as starring roles in big-budget Hollywood films including Chicago (2002), Hairspray (2007), Valentine’s Day (2010), and Girls Trip (2017). Latifah’s production company, Flavor Unit Entertainment, has produced many of these projects. Latifah has additionally appeared over 290 times in interviews, award shows, and talk shows over the last two decades, including in her own series, The Queen Latifah Show (CBS, 2013-2014). A versatile performer, Latifah holds 54 soundtrack credits—she provides original music for many of the films and television series in which she stars. Latifah currently serves as executive producer for shows on Lifetime and MTV and a variety of film projects. Most recently, she held a regular role in Lee Daniels’ series Star (Fox, 2016-2019) and guest starred in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood (2020). According to a 2020 list, Latifah is one of the highest paid Black actresses in Hollywood.[18] She is the recipient of numerous prestigious titles, including a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe Award, two NAACP Image Awards, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Despite her prolific career of film and television production, scholarship on Latifah predominantly focuses on her music career. Latifah figures prominently in Black feminist analysis of hip-hop and within hip-hop feminism, which analyze how Black women in hip-hop confront racism and misogyny. In these works, Queen Latifah is most often cited within a genealogy of Black women MCs and hip-hop artists, including Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Foxy Brown, and Li’l Kim, who explore gender and racial politics in their music and lyrics. For example, Joan Morgan affirms,

“The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary Black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet—the juncture where ‘truth’ is no longer Black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray.”[19]

Here Morgan mobilizes Latifah to formulate her provocative thesis about “fuckin’ with the grays”: that exploring the material contradictions of Black women’s lives and pleasures provides a theoretical framework for grappling with sexism and racism in hip-hop. For Morgan and other scholars, Queen Latifah’s work represents a significant contribution to Black feminist cultural production that embraces the nuances and contradictions held by women with multiple identities and desires.

While scholars have theorized about the intersections of queerness and hip-hop culture, Queen Latifah is largely absent from this literature. Much of this work builds off of the Black feminist/hip-hop feminist perspective to position hip-hop as a queer (non-normative) musical and artistic practice with radical potentialities. Or, as Jessica Pabón and Shanté Smalls assert, “‘feminist,’ ‘queer,’ and ‘hip hop’ are critical sites and methods of inquiry aimed at exposing and deconstructing intersectional structures of oppression.”[20] Contrary to hip-hop feminist work that celebrates Latifah’s music, this scholarship rejects Latfiah’s career as heteronormative. For example, in Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s piece, “Fat Mutha: Hip Hop’s Queer Corpulent Poetics,” Latifah figures as one of example in a lineage of hip-hop stars who “highlight the intersections of fatness, blackness, and queerness.”[21] Sullivan, however, focuses her analysis on out queer rappers from whom she can imagine a “fat future for queer hip hop.”[22] Sullivan does not present a detailed analysis of Latifah because she asserts that Latifah eschews “both queerness and fatness in favor of more heteronormative—and, arguably, more lucrative—presentations of coherent normative gender.”[23] As hinted in Sullivan’s article, it is likely that Latifah is “missing” from much of this scholarship because she declines to discuss her sexuality in public.

Latifah is similarly “missing” from queer media studies scholarship, likely because queer production studies centers the labor of out LGBTQ directors, writers, and producers. As Alfred Martin writes, the production of Black queer television is dependent upon the existence of Black LGBTQ authors:

“While television authorship is undoubtedly contested and negotiated, the centrality of each of the writer’s identity cannot be ignored….writer’s individual autobiographies shape the ways the episodes developed.”[24]

Because the out queer author is so central to the scholarship, it is difficult to discuss queer production without acknowledging the sexuality of the producer or writer. This leaves a significant gap in the field: how can scholars examine the queer cultural production of a celebrity who keeps her sexual identity ambiguous? As I will discuss, Queen Latifah’s labor and political commitments shape the cultural work she produces, despite her decision not to name her sexuality.

A look at Latifah’s involvement in two unconventional television projects, Bessie and The Wiz Live!, demonstrates how she encodes Black queer cultural references into her work. Queer television studies typically analyzes the production and representation of LGBTQ characters in episodic sitcoms, serial dramas, and reality television. Taking a look at the queerness of television projects that exceed regularly scheduled broadcast and cable programming—in this case, a televisual biopic and an adaptation of a Broadway show—can expand our understanding of LGBTQ television beyond the standard programming of the commercial system to include cinematic television, live television, and “media events,” among others. Analyzing both Latifah’s role as producer and/or star in these projects, as well as her performance in each, I examine the significant role she plays in shaping the television projects she helps to produce.

Sororal authorship and
the historical black queer past of Bessie

The creative collaboration between Latifah and Black lesbian director Dee Rees helped make the Bessie film a reality. Bessie was released on HBO in early 2015 but plans for a film about the life of Bessie Smith were in talks for a number of decades. The idea surfaced in the 1970s but never came to fruition; in the early 1990s, Columbia Pictures revived the idea and worked with biographer Chris Albertson and playwright Horton Foote to prepare a script.[25] Albertson suggested Queen Latifah, already an established hip-hop star and actress, to play the lead role—while she was interested, the financing for the project fell apart.[26] Fifteen years later, in 2009, producer Hallie Foote, who inherited the rights to the project from her late father, approached HBO about the project.[27] Rees, whose first feature-length film Pariah (2011) premiered to critical acclaim, signed on to direct Bessie in 2013.

Latifah and Black lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees fostered a close creative partnership to produce Bessie, reflecting what Patricia White calls the “sororal model” of women’s independent film authorship. Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism examines the careers of blues legends Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Billie Holiday, mining their lyrics and performances for articulations of Black feminist consciousness.

Patricia White argues that women’s art cinema often features a “sororal model” of authorship evidenced by a “multiplicity” in the relationships between the filmmakers and the characters on screen.[28] The sororal model offers an alternative to the traditional understanding that a (typically male) auteur has complete creative control, instead highlighting the contributions of gender-diverse on and off-screen talent in the making of a film. I argue that Bessie features this sororal model of authorship: Rees did much of the work to shape the narrative and thematic elements of Bessie, while Latifah provided financial support for the film and labored to produce a vocally and historically accurate performance of Bessie Smith’s style and sexual expression.

In interviews, Rees has discussed the research that went into creating an historically accurate fictional world in Bessie. Rees relied heavily upon scholarship about this era—she calls Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism her “bible.”[29] The book, a canonical text in African American studies and gender studies, analyzes the music and lyrics of blues women to demonstrate how these songs “serve as a rich terrain for examining a historical feminist consciousness that reflected the lives of working-class black communities.”[30] Davis explicitly discusses the way Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey incorporated lesbian subtext into their songs. Prefiguring the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s by half a century, Davis writes that Rainey and Smith “openly challenged the gender politics implicit in traditional cultural representations of marriage and heterosexual love relationships.”[31] With a closer look at Bessie, we can see how Rees and Latifah incorporate the spirit of resistance and resilience thatDavis highlights in her book into the film.

Bessie fits amongst a group of films that critic Richard M. Breaux calls “Queer Black Cinema.”[32] Made by Black LGBTQ filmmakers, Queer Black Cinema explores the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality for Black LGBTQ subjects on screen. A number of these films focus on or reference the Harlem Renaissance because it was an “era of modernism, excess, and urban relocation [that] brought components of queer black culture out into the open.”[33] Bessie, which depicts Bessie Smith’s fluid sexuality as well as the racism and sexism she experienced in the music industry, squarely fits within this growing body of films.

The Bessie Smith of Bessie is an emotionally complex and defiantly independent woman committed to retaining control of her performance style, musical routine, and choice of sexual partners. Bessie is one of only a handful of commercial films to feature a main character who has relationships with both men and women on screen. As Maria San Filippo argues, contemporary film and television are filled with “missed moments” that elide the bisexual potential of their protagonists.[34] Bessie features multiple instances of on-screen sex, in which Smith engages both romantically and physically with male and female partners. In the opening minutes of the film, in a bedroom scene at a boarding house, Smith and another a woman (whom we later learn is her longtime lover Lucille) lie in bed kissing and giggling, expressing their affection and attraction towards one another. It eventually becomes clear that Smith and Lucille’s relationship in non-monogamous; Smith flirts with other women and later develops relationships with men as well.

Black female characters in film and literature have historically been denied sexual complexity and erotic pleasure in order to establish their morality. As Lisa Thompson suggests, a performance of respectability politics for black women “relies heavily upon aggressive shielding of the body; concealing sexuality; and foregrounding morality, intelligence, and civility as a way to counter negative stereotypes.”[35] Thompson concludes that it is a Black feminist intervention to “prioritize women’s sexual pleasure” in film and media.[36] Bessie is one such feminist intervention. Latifah’s brazen expression of Bessie Smith’s sexuality on screen interrupts a long lineage of desexualized, respectable Black female characters. The character’s explicit queerness adds another layer of sexual complexity to the film. By including Smith’s sexual relationships with both men and women in the diegesis of the film, Bessie highlights the oft-overlooked history that Angela Davis helped to uncover: the significant role that Black queer women played in 1920s African American cultural production.  

In addition to explicit depictions of queer sex and sexuality, Bessie features a queer mentoring relationship between Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) and Smith, the latter honing her confidence and performance chops from the former. In one striking scene, Ma Rainey performs the song “Prove It On Me Blues” on stage wearing a top hat and tuxedo and sporting a cane. As Davis writes, the lyrics of this song are filled with lesbian subtext.[37] Rainey’s performance embodies the lyrics: she struts around stage with a confident butch swagger, while reaction shots reveal Smith’s joy and the crowd’s delight. Rainey’s highly stylized, commanding performance here allows her to embody a queer masculinity not typically socially sanctioned for Black women in the early 20th century.