Acknowledgements: A number of mentors, colleagues, thought partners, and friends shaped my thinking during the process of writing this article. I would like to thank Miriam Petty, Nick Davis, Shayna Silverstein, Joëlle Rouleau and Julia Lesage, Nicole Morse, the Spring 2017 cohort of Northwestern’s Gender & Sexuality Studies graduate student colloquium (including Cara Dickason, Bennie Niles, Shoniqua Roach, and Rae Langes in particular), Ilana Emmett, Crystal Camargo, and Tobias Rodriguez for their support and feedback at various stages of this project. Special thanks to my former roommates, Trace Roth and Kim Singletary, with whom I watched Bessie and The Wiz Live! respectively, and whose love of Black and queer cultural production helped inspire this piece. All my gratitude, as always, to Steph and Bella Herold, for everything.


1. While Bessie Smith did not self-identify as a bisexual woman, her relationships with both women and men were documented. For the sake of clarity, I will use the words “queer” and “bisexual” in this essay to describe the filmic representation of Bessie Smith’s sexuality, despite the fact that no words are given to describe her sexual behavior. [return to page 1]

2. Raina Deerwater, “VIDEO: Queen Latifah Accepts for Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series at the #glaadawards in LA,” GLAAD, April 1, 2016, https://www.glaad.org/blog/video-queen-latifah-accepts-outstanding-tv-movie-or-limited-series-glaadawards-la.

3. Rich Juzwiak, “Queen Latifah’s Open Closet,” Gawker, January 27, 2014, http://gawker.com/queen-latifahs-open-closet-1509861564.

4. A few notable exceptions: Kara Keeling’s chapter “What’s Up with That? She Don’t Talk?: Set if Off’s Black Lesbian Butch-Femme,” which I will discuss later in the paper; the book-length study TV Female Foursomes and the Fans (2015) by Wendy A. Burns-Ardolino that discusses Latifah’s role in Living Single; and Linda Mizejewski’s article “Queen Latifah, unruly women, and the bodies of romantic comedy” that discusses intersections of identity in Latifah’s romantic comedy films in the journal Genders, Issue 46, December 2007.

5. Miriam Petty, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 23.

6. Ralina Joseph’s recent book Postracial Resistance: Black Women. Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity (2018) is one important exception.

7. Petty, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, 26.

8. Vicki Mayer, Miranda J. Banks, and John T. Caldwell, Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), 4, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northwestern/

9. Mayer, Banks, and Caldwell, 4.

10. Alfred Martin Jr., “Introduction: What Is Queer Production Studies/Why Is Queer Production Studies?,” Journal of Film and Video 70, no. 3–4 (2018): 5.

11. Patricia White, “‘Invite Me In!’: Angela Robinson at Hollywood’s Threshold,” in Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, ed. Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 184.

12. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

13. Jimmy Draper, “Idol Speculation: Queer Identity and a Media-Imposed Lens of Detection,” Popular Communication 10, no. 3 (July 2012): 202–3.

14. Lynne Joyrich, “Epistemology of the Console,” Critical Inquiry 27, no. 3 (April 2001).

15. C. Riley Snorton, Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 4.

16. Snorton, 33.

17. Unless otherwise stated, the information in this paragraph has been pulled from the International Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001451/.

18. Njera Perkins, “Meet Hollywood’s Highest-Paid Black Actors and Actresses - AfroTech,” Afrotech, April 10, 2020, https://afrotech.com/meet-hollywoods-highest-paid-black-actors-and-actresses.

19. Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down (New York, N.Y: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 66.

20. Jessica N. Pabón and Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “Critical Intimacies: Hip Hop as Queer Feminist Pedagogy,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 24, no. 1 (January 2, 2014): 2.

21. Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, “Fat Mutha: Hip Hop’s Queer Corpulent Poetics,” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International 2, no. 2 (2013).

22. Sullivan, 210.

23. Sullivan, 209.

24. Alfred L. Martin, “Scripting Black Gayness: Television Authorship in Black-Cast Sitcoms,” Television & New Media 16, no. 7 (November 2015): 661.

25. Judith Smith, “Bessie,” ed. Thomas Doherty, Journal of American History 102.

26. Smith, 964.

27. Smith, 964.

28. Patricia White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 65.

29. Meredith Blake, “Q&A: Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique and Dee Rees on Making HBO’s ‘Bessie’ Biopic,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-bessie-queen-latifah-monique-20150516-story.html.

30. Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday (Vintage, 1999), xv.

31. Davis, 41.

32. Richard M Breaux, “Bessie, Queer Black Cinema in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, and the Mining of the Harlem Renaissance,” The Appollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 2, no. 2 (September 2015): 30.

33. Breaux, 33.

34. Maria San Filippo, The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 15.

35. Lisa Thompson, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009), 2.

36. Thompson, 13.

37. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday, 40.

38. Dee Rees has also admitted the Lucille character is fictional; she is a composite character based upon a number relationships Bessie Smith had with women. [return to page 2]

39. Smith, “Gore Vidal,” 964.

40. “In HBO’s ‘Bessie,’ Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues,” NPR.org, May 16, 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/05/16/406453568/in-hbos-bessie-queen-latifah-stars-as-empress-of-the-blues.

41. Candace Moore, “Producing Black Lesbian Media,” in Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, ed. Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 125–42.

42. “In HBO’s ‘Bessie,’ Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues.”

43. Janet Staiger, “Authorship Studies and Gus Van Sant,” Film Criticism 29, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 3.

44. “In HBO’s ‘Bessie,’ Queen Latifah Stars As Empress Of The Blues.”

45. Allen L. Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ Pr, 1989), 263.

46. Woll, 263.

47. Woll, 263.

48. Woll, 266.

49. See New York Times review by Wesley Morris, “In ‘The Wiz Live!’ on NBC, A Search for More in the Emerald City,” Published December 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/arts/television/wiz-wizard-oz-nbc-review.html?_r=0., the Vanity Fair review by Katey Rich, “The Wiz Live! Was Actually Good, and People Actually Watched,” Published December 4 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/12/the-wiz-live-ratings., and the Los Angeles Times review by Mary McNamara “‘The Wiz Live!’: Gorgeous, Utterly Sincere, and with Attitude to Spare,” Published December 4 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-review-the-wiz-live-20151203-story.html.

50. Matt Webb Mitovich, “Ratings: ‘The Wiz Live’ Tops ‘Peter Pan,’ Edged Out by CBS Football | TVLine,” TVLine, December 4, 2015, https://tvline.com/2015/12/04/the-wiz-live-ratings-nbc/.

51. Tony Maglio, “‘The Wiz Live’ Is Most-Social Live Special Ever,” The Wrap, December 4, 2015, https://www.thewrap.com/the-wiz-live-is-most-social-live-special-program-in-nielsen-twitter-tv-history/.

52. Shantrelle P. Lewis, “The Biggity Blackest Moments of The Wiz Live and Why We Loved It So Much,” Shoppe Black, December 4, 2015, https://shoppeblack.us/2015/12/top-biggity-blackest-moments-wiz-live/.

53. Mark Dery, ed., “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180–81.

54. Dan Hassler-Forest, “The Wonderful Afrofuturism of ‘The Wiz’,” Science Fiction Film and Television 9, no. 1 (2016): 88–90.

55. Marlon M. Bailey, “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture,” Feminist Studies 37, no. 2, (2011): 368.

56. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Twentieth Anniversary edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2019).

57. Kara Keeling, “What’s Up with That? She Don’t Talk?: Set If Off’s Black Lesbian Butch Femme,” in The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007), 112.

58. Keeling, 119.

59. Francesca T. Royster, Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 26.

60. Royster, 28.

61. Royster, 8.

62. Keeling, “What’s Up with That? She Don’t Talk?: Set If Off’s Black Lesbian Butch Femme,” 123.

63. Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 26.

64. QuirkyRican, Twitter, accessed July 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/quirkyrican/status/672603390061473794.

65. Keeling, “What’s Up with That? She Don’t Talk?: Set If Off’s Black Lesbian Butch Femme,” 132.

66. Craig Zadan passed away in 2018.

67. Shaina411, “[Interview] Queen Latifah Talks Playing The Wiz,” The Source, November 30, 2015, https://thesource.com/2015/11/30/interview-queen-latifah-talks-playing-the-wiz/.

68. Shaina411.

69. Yohana Desta, “‘The Wiz Live’ Will Be NBC’s Most Modern Musical Yet,” Mashable, November 29, 2015, https://mashable.com/2015/11/29/the-wiz-live/.

70. “Holland Taylor Steps Off Her Island | Death, Sex & Money,” WNYC Studios, November 24, 2015, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/deathsexmoney/episodes/holland-taylor-death-sex-money.

71. Ralina L. Joseph, Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity (NYU Press, 2018).

72. San Filippo, The B Word, 20.

73. Katherine Sender, “Dualcasting: Bravo’s Gay Programming and the Quest for Women Audiences,” in Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, ed. Sarah Banet-Weiser, Cynthia Chris, and Anthony Freitas (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 302–18.

74. Royster, Sounding Like a No-No, 24.