“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” December 22, 2020, Netflix. We both really liked and recommend this exceptional adaptation of August Wilson’s first major Broadway show. The late Chadwick Boseman (too soon, too young) and Viola Davis lead a stellar cast in this story of racism and culture in the 1920s. “Mother of the Blues” so-called, Ma Rainey is taking her band into recording studios in Chicago to record her hits in the traditional blues style she cleaved to. One of her band members, Levee, her trumpeter, has a different version of “Black Bottom” that he’s written and thinks will be more popular. Ma is not amused and is uncompromising. It is her way or the highway. She’s able to demand acquiescence form her band. She is a star in the segregated Black community and, especially, in the Jim Crow South, where a parallel economy and culture, subordinate albeit to white power, exists.
She’s even able to extract obeisance from her white manager and the record producer she’s working with. But she knows that’s only because she’s a star. Otherwise she is disdained as are other African-Americans in white America. She knows that they will use her until she no longer serves their interests. She also knows that she scandalizes proper Black middle-class society with her raw blues sound and her lesbianism, but there, she is able to stare down their disapproving looks.
But this is only one part of the story. Levee is part of the band and his work with these fellow musicians is often fraught. The sparring is both jovial and pointed. Older, more experienced musicians understand that Ma does what Ma does, not what others want. They get Levee’s goals but try to get him to understand the limits of his situation. It is a tense and, sometimes, explosive environment. His bandmates, and especially trombonist Cutler (Coleman Domingo) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) have been around the block. Each has their own sense of the imperatives of the moment, both in the studio and in society. How does the Black man, the African man, make his way? Change the power relations? But so has Levee in his own way and with his own pain. His experiences with ‘the white man’ have left profound scars, but there are more to come. The lessons of white power in America never stop being taught. And where does that pain come? Some is turned inward and some outward on his bandmates. The consequences are not pretty.
Produced by Denzell Washington and wonderfully directed by George C. Wolfe, Reuben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of the Wilson play crackles with energy, tension, humor, and pain. It expands on the play by letting us see those moments when Ma is in her element and in charge. Less successfully, it steps beyond the play to show us white bands performing music done by a bandmember but sold for a pittance to white producers. Think Pat Boone doing “Tutti Frutti,” decades later, sterile, deracinated, and utterly boring. It wasn’t in the play and doesn’t work well.
One last thought. The music, which suffuses the entire film and was directed by Branford Marsalis, is an absolute joy. It feeds into the tensions at play in the evolution of blues as an art form and as a commercial product. Similarly, the makeup, and especially Viola Davis’s stage makeup, is remarkable for both its vibrancy and its theatrics. This woman made clear she was a force of nature.
In all the movie is a challenging and profoundly moving and meaningful piece. Chadwick Boseman gets my vote for Best Actor, and Viola Davis gets it for Best Actress. It is a stunning piece of work by these amazingly talented artists.