Playwright August Wilson (1945 – 2005) left behind a series of ten plays about Black American life. Most of these are set in Pittsburgh, as was the 2016 filmed version of “Fences.” But “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the most recently adapted Wilson play, takes place in Chicago in 1927 at the peak of the great migration of southern Blacks to the large cities in the north. Producing this film is Denzel Washington, who both produced and starred in “Fences” and has committed to bringing Wilson’s plays to the screen.
We first see Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), often called the mother of the blues, performing in a large rural Georgia tent for an entirely Black audience. But her recordings have reached a northern white audience as well, and the remainder of the film is set within or just outside a recording studio in Chicago. Rainey’s agent, Irv (Jeremy Shamos), is white, as are the studio employees, but the rehearsing musicians are Black. Establishing her clout as a now-famous blues singer, Rainey arrives late and insists on drinking a bottle of Coca Cola before she can begin recording.
Not only is Rainey establishing her authority within the recording business, but we quickly see that she will not tolerate innovation within the group of musicians who accompany her. A cheeky, brash, and talented trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has convinced the rehearsing band that Rainey had agreed to performing his newer, jazzier rendition of her songs. But opening her mouth full of gold-plated teeth and throwing her considerable weight around the studio (Davis wears a fleshy body suit), Rainey insists there will be no new arrangements to her music. She and she alone will control the style and sounds of her recorded music.
Wilson’s play is adept at depicting the transfer of anger and frustration toward the power that the white community wields over Blacks to the rivalry and dissension within their own ranks. To underscore this, Wilson uses a centuries-old archetypal device from fairy tales and myths – the magic of shoes. Before coming to the rehearsal, Levee has purchased a pair of shiny bright yellow shoes, which he proudly displays to his fellow performers. If anyone accidentally bumps up against these golden shoes, Levee falls into a rage. Their symbolic power will play out until the final scenes of this film.
Also creating dissension within the small group of Black musicians is Rainey’s companion, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who is young, seductive and beautiful. She fancies a role for herself as an entertainer, but she has little or no talent. However, her attraction to Levee creates another source of animosity between Rainey and the upstart trumpeter. Another source of contention within the group of entertainers is expressed by Levee’s assault on belief in God. One of the musicians, an ordained minister, is particularly offended by Levee’s dismissal of “a white man’s God,” who has no concern for the problems faced by Blacks.
The film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has been adapted from the play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who opened up some of the scenes by taking them to the outdoors. But viewers of this film will notice elements of stagecraft in the use of confined spaces within the recording studio. They may also notice the play’s extensive use of dialogue and lengthy soliloquies, especially in the scenes with Levee.
It should be noted that in a film distinguished by remarkable acting on the part of the ensemble of characters and the superbly talented Davis, the actor who stands out in every frame he inhabits is Boseman, for whom this was his last film. In his movie career he had portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall, as well as the superhero in “Black Panther.” Boseman died at age 44, just months after completing this film.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” can be seen on Netflix.
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