George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is, if nothing else, educational. An adaptation of famed playwright August Wilson’s original 1982 play, Wolfe’s film is a dense but swift dance through a story colored by as much fiction as history. Much like its original author, it strives to provide insight into an experience known by only those who resemble its cast.
Born to a White American father and an African American mother, Wilson was influenced by revolutionary Black writers like James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. But Wilson’s genius is his own, at least as much as any writer’s success is their own.
Finding mild successes in Pittsburgh, Wilson would truly break out in Minneapolis with his first full-length play, Jinney, what would be the first of ten plays set in early 20th century America, all of which were dedicated to the Black experience of that era. But before then, he was already rummaging through record stores for vinyl collections of classic blues, all of which he would wear out past the expiration dates with artists like Bessie Smith and Rainey getting him through the early struggles of becoming a professional playwright. Wilson would write,
“There was a nobility to the lives of Blacks in America, which I didn’t always see… After discovering the blues, I began to look at the people in the [rooming] house a little differently than I had before. I began to see a value in their lives that I simply hadn’t seen before. I discovered a beauty and nobility in their struggle to survive.”
Admittedly unfamiliar with his plays, Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Netflix adaptation is a worthy introduction piece, I hope. A film that operates as a low-budget but an incredibly intimate celebration of three real-life Black artists and legends. There’s Ma (Viola Davis), the famed blues singer often referred to as the “Mother of Blues;” Chadwick Boseman, playing Levee in what would be his final role after passing away this year from a year’s long battle with cancer: and then there’s Wilson, a bi-racial playwright obsessed with providing insight into the American Black experience.
And Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom accomplishes this feat in more ways than one, managing to be about the tragedies of Black America but also their successes — just like the Blues. The opening scene of Ma’s seductive performance in a small tent for an exclusively Black audience in Jim Crow Georgia introduces the glow of Black art, able to find its way into the light even amidst the sharpness of bigotry. That sharpness is found in the studio halls, where she is subjugated to the control of an all-White music industry that abuses her voice for profit. But Ma has her way’s, her philosophies for dealing with the White man. For her, it is the willingness to sell herself for the White man’s pockets, if only to be in command of them till the moment she signs over control.
For Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the band’s trumpeter, Ma is a relic, a symbol of his parent’s music that is becoming too antique for the evolving white audience that was beginning to become more and more risque. He sees his avenue into the White man’s pocket by forcing Ma’s music to grow and expand, something more upbeat, more evocative than the slow sways of Ma’s original work. His work is liked by the studio’s owners, so much so that they hoped to use it as a substitute for Ma’s original piece. No one bothered to tell Ma this, who refuses to abide by such regulations.
This conflict breeds a ricocheting of perspectives. We are taught Levee’s tribulations and suffering, but also his methodologies and ideologies that he rests upon to travel through a White man’s world.
Ma ultimately gets her way, though. She has the record produced by her ways and means and leaves with nothing but a marginal reward of esteem and profit. Levee, however, is left as the one punished by Ma’s successes. The producers turn their back on Levee, appropriating his music like owned land and leaving Levee with nothing but his shoes. The shoes he bought after a successful payday and a saunter through the streets of Chicago at the beginning of the film, a luxury owned by him and no one else. When one of the bandmates accidentally steps on them, his rage gets the best of him, and he stabs them in the back, killing them.
Baldwin, one of the famed writers Wilson found himself influenced by, was once asked by a radio host what it means to be Black in America. He answered,
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.”
Throughout the film, we glance by Levee’s rage, his buried resentment for a haughty world where God only cares for the White man, as does the rest of the world around him. The systemic oppression bears down upon his family, leaving his father dead after attempting to get revenge on the gang of White men that had their way with his wife one afternoon while he went into town. The frustration he feels for an old generation that seems to have accepted their fates or found other ways of interacting with the White man that he does not understand. And, now, the sorrow and embarrassment he feels for being made a fool of by the very man he hoped to swindle. His pride is vanquished, and after all he’s been through, the only thing left to his name is rage: rage, and his yellow pair of shoes.
All that is left for Levee is that rage. He doesn’t have the currency amassed by Ma; he has nothing to offer the White man besides his body. He has been swallowed by a system designed to break him, to burden him with emotional wreckage and economic tragedy. He is left in a sunken place of hatred and fragile pride that will spawn Levee to do reckless actions that breed catastrophe and grief when lacerated. When one is but a cog in a system, their humanity is slowly stripped from them and replaced by nothing more than extremity. Boiling pot emotions that are so easily ignited by the pain of being who they are in a world unwelcoming of their nature.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not only great for this one high-note. Its intricacies continue, and the performances manifest moments of awe and splendor, if not for the characters than for the people they embody. The culture tethered to the frames and the society that film is anchored to is captured by Wolfe, but also by Wilson before him.
Wilson set out to tell Black stories, to provide patrons with a window into lives we can only best understand with the magnification of fiction. In this fiction, we discover the reality of Black women’s longing for independence, to tie one’s self to their roots in the authoritative face of power and bigotry. We learn about the on-going yearning for recognition, for respect in a land constructed by the ghosts of those who stripped away a culture’s right to power, forcing them to develop art that not only affirms themselves but traces their struggles for self-determination.
The blues did this, Wilson did this, and Wolfe continues this centuries-spanning affair to be heard and seen by a world that is only beginning to confront the sins of its ancestors. Ancestors that stripped away everything they could, from land to pride, leaving nothing behind but the kindling of rage in the ether of bigoted darkness.