12/22/2020     MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM                   Netflix / Area Movie Theatre


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“I ain’t started the blues way of singing.  The blues always been here.”


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second of August Wilson's "20th Century" cycle of plays to reach movie screens (and Netflix), and, like 2016’s Fences, it is an uncommon achievement.  Directed by Theatrical legend George C. Wolfe, it is a vivid portrait of the false promise of the early 20th century northern migration of southern blacks, the onerous racial resistance and demeaning physical labor warehousing faced by those seeking a better life.


In essence, the movie (like Mr. Wilson’s 1984 play), is a day in the life of Ma Rainey, a singer dubbed “Mother Blues” by her fans.  It is the 1927, and Ma is in Chicago to record four songs for white producer Mel Sturdyvant, and things too soon go from bad to worse.


“All They want is my voice.”


The late Mr. Wilson was a consummate crafter of words, of characters, of atmosphere.  Accordingly, this essay (like my piece on the Fences movie) will be punctuated by his words, words Ma Rainey voices about her music, her world, and her blues.


In a departure from the play, the movie opens with a flashback of Ma at the peak of her fame.  A tent in the Georgia woods is stuffed to the canvas with her fans, all black, all basking in her talent and in her music.  We’re left with the singular knowledge that Ma’s “escape” north will be, in reality, a “break” from her “comfort zone,” a migration from a south where she is queen to a north where she is just another black woman who needs to be “handled” just so the record producers can grow rich.

“Ma don’t stand for no shit.”


From the start, Ma engages in what can only be described as “joyful defiance.”  She doesn’t care a whit for what her white “handlers” want from her or what that brash young trumpet player (Levee) wants to do to her music.  Levee represents a new generation of urban jazz musicians who see their audience as hard-working downtrodden folk who just want to dance, calling Ma’s “jug band music” a relic of the past that will soon be forgotten.  But even though her career is almost over, Ma is still the boss, and she sets the rules and tolerates no discussion.


Ma knows how to “play the game” with Sturdyvant, the actual leverage she wields to get what she wants. She knows Levee, who is trying to start a band to record his own songs, is woefully ignorant, an ignorance which is driven painfully home by the movie’s coda (also not in the original play).  Levee may know how to deal with white bigots, but he hasn’t a clue how to deal with the man with a smile on his face and some disposable cash in his hand.


“Ain’t nobody thinking about Bessie.”


Still, Ma knows her career days are numbered, that younger (and more popular) talents like Bessie Smith (and perhaps even Levee if he ever loses that chip on his shoulder and that  wandering eye for flashy shoes and flashier women) will soon replace her.  But she claims to have “made Bessie,” made the world open to her style of music and has no problem recording (in her own style) “Moonshine Blues,” a song already recorded by Bessie.


“The blues help you get out of bed in the morning.  You get up knowing you ain’t alone.  There’s something else in the world.  Something’s been added by that song.  This be an empty world without the blues.  I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something.”


Ma’s back-up band, Levee aside, is made up of old bluesmen, men who know Ma and her songs, who bask in her reflected glory.  Led by Cutler, the trombonist who seems to be the only one Ma respects (sometimes), they also include Toledo, the pianist who is the only one who can read and who isn’t quite as smart as he thinks, and Slow Drag, the bassist, sturdy, dependable, and, (true to his name) perhaps a bit slow.  Ma’s entourage (when she finally arrives) includes her nephew, Sylvester, whose stutter doesn’t seem to matter to Ma’s insistence on him being an “announcer” for her signature song (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).  Also along is Dussie Mae, a young dancer who may be Ma’s paramour, but who seems to be more interested in what Levee can offer (at least financially).


It is within this cauldron of talent and ego that the play (and movie) finds its drive, its essence.  Squabbles rise and fade in a bluesy rhythm, hot anger occasionally burst forth like a trumpet solo, a knife appears and the inevitable final riff, a petty little tune over-fueled by disappointment and pride, brings a final note that ends more than one life and career. When the empty world loses its music, there’s nothing left but lashing out.


“I always got to have some music going on in my head somewhere.”


Centering the film are two remarkable performances: Viola Davis (Oscar winner for Fences) is Ma Rainey, larger than life, gold-toothed and charging through life with a take-no-prisoners drive.  Heavily made up (almost clown-faced, like the real Ma Rainey, as we’re told in a post-film documentary), she never shows her real face to anyone.  The late Chadwick Boseman brings Levee to life, always moving, always plotting, always smiling, even when he is at his angriest.  Two scenes in particular achingly show what we have lost with Mr. Boseman’s premature death:  a monologue about the rape of his mother by a gang of   Southern “crackers,” and an angry screed against God for letting that happen.   Both scenes are gripping and compelling and won’t soon be forgotten.


This praise is not to belittle the performances of the rest of the cast, particularly the band members: playwright/actor Colman Domingo (Dot, Fear the Walking Dead) as Cutler, Glynn Turman (the new season of Fargo, and countless roles since 1970) as Toledo, and Michael Potts (True Detective and The Wire) as Slow Drag.  The entire ensemble is brilliantly in synch.


Mr. Wolfe directs with a sure hand from a revised script by August Wilson scholar and collaborator Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose adaptation consists mainly of a new beginning and ending, and a few invisible cuts to keep the running time under two hours (and who admits to replacing some of Mr. Wilson’s poetic dialogue with equally poetic imagery).  The music was written by Branford Marsalis and provides evocative period ambience and melody.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a marvelous exercise in film adaptation, a compelling portrait of the Chicago music industry of the 1920’s, and a breathtaking portrayal (albeit highly fictionalized) of a singer whose star too quickly faded.  It is a reminder that, even now (40 years after it was written and almost a hundred years after the era it portrays) Black Americans are still treated as “leftovers” in the stew that is the American Dream.  It is filled to the brim with outstanding performances and comes with an attention to period detail that is impressive. And it is a vivid reminder (thematically and literally), that breaking down doors can just lead to new and different prisons.


“White folks don’t understand about the blues.  They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.  They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.  You don’t sing to feel better.  You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.”.”

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy   #MaRaineysBlackBottom   #AugustWilsonCenturyPlays)