The lady sings the blues
African-American Tony-winning Director, George C. Wolfe’s $20 million adaptation of the black playwright, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, won Chadwick Boseman a posthumous Golden Globe, but failed to win either him nor the equally brilliant Viola Davis an Oscar at last month’s awards in Tinseltown. Both actors however won the Screen Actors Guild. In the age of COVID-19, this movie was released on Netflix in December 2020, and has garnered rave reviews.
The Poetic Playwright
Some background on the creator of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is important. Playwright, August Wilson, was born in April 1945 in Pittsburgh to a German father and African-American mother in the black Hill District. He observed the tales of everyday people, and facing widespread racism, dropped out of school at 15, spending hours alone in the library. He was thus essentially self-taught. After he discovered the blues through Bessie Smith, Wilson sought to set the stories of the invisible subalterns of the Hill District into lyrical prose: maids, taxi-drivers, hustlers, garbage-men, and petty criminals. He described the blues as “the wellspring of my art,” and it gave him an empathy for his people’s struggles. This was a “history from below” that was determined to place black aspirations for love, dignity, and contentment into a universal context and to give voice to the voiceless. Like James Baldwin’s Beale Street, Wilson’s Hill District represented the experiences that had shaped the rich tapestry of post-slavery Black American life. Blues and jazz could not have been born without the suffering of slavery and the traditional work-songs on plantations, and Wilson consistently sought through his art to capture the spiritual and moral values of his African ancestors. He was inspired to go into theatre after seeing John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play, Sizwe Bansi is Dead in 1976.
Due to the blues being his Muse, several of Wilson’s 16 plays – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and Seven Guitars – dealt with musical themes. He was greatly influenced by Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Ed Bullins, and was an active member of the Black Power movement from the late 1960s. Wilson set out consciously as an artistic griot to chronicle a history he felt had never been properly told. He thus produced 10 plays – the Pittsburgh Cycle – with each decade of the millennium dealing with Black Life in America. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom debuted in 1982, and made Wilson’s reputation. He won a Tony Award for the 1987 Fences (adapted as a 2013 film in which Viola Davis won an Oscar, starring alongside Denzel Washington). His plays recorded an impressive 1,800 performances in the Mecca of theatre: New York’s Broadway. Wilson is one of only seven American playwrights to have won two Pulitzer Prizes, for Fences (which grossed a record $11 million on Broadway in a single year) and The Piano Lesson, entering the pantheon of American dramatists like Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. Wilson died in October 2005 at the age of 60.
Ma Rainey’s Tales and Themes
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film about the legendary blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis) – the “Mother of the Blues” – who migrated from Georgia to Chicago as part of “the Great Migration” of blacks from the post-bellum South to the industrialised North from 1916. Like Wilson’s play, the movie takes place on a single sweltering summer day in a run-down Paramount recording studio in 1927. Two white executives oversee the turbulent session as a trio of band members – pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – engage in lively banter with the brilliant trumpeter, Levee Green (Chadwich Boseman). Levee is seeking to create a new funkier sound that fits the Zeitgeist better than what he dismisses as Ma Rainey’s “old jug-band music.” He is also trying to convince the white producers to let him record his own songs, and break away from Rainey. Through their rich dialogue, the band members discuss racism, religion, and rage, exposing issues of powerlessness, humiliation, and brutalization in apartheid America.
The superstar singer arrives an hour late for the recording with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). She demands to be provided with Coca-Cola and insists that her nephew – who has a bad stammer – speak the introduction to the album, leading to countless retakes. In the end, the two strong-headed main characters – Ma Rainey and Levee – clash, as each seeks to outcompete the other. Ma Rainey eventually fires Levee for his disloyalty. The trumpeter ends up selling his songs to the white producer for a pittance, and the film ends with a white band playing his songs as their own.
The Diva and the Dissident
The central actors in this film are Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis wanted to capture Ma Rainey’s authentic grease face, sweat, and gold-grilled teeth, and deliberately set out not to glamorize her. The original Georgia tent-show singer is thus depicted in all her volatile glory. Rainey is a stubborn and demanding diva who knows her true worth, and is conscious of the exploitation of her talent by white producers. But this indomitable black Mother Courage still insists on being treated with respect. As she notes “All they care about is my voice.”
Boseman died of colon cancer at 43 in August 2020 during post-production, and this film is an elegy to his incredible talent. His performance rivals his superlative depiction of James Brown in the 2014 biopic, Get on Up, as well as the more light-hearted King T’Challa in the 2018 Black Panther. He pours his heart and soul into a difficult role of a charming, arrogant, angry, insecure, impetuous, and traumatized young man who watched his mother being raped by nine white men at the age of eight. He bears a scar inflicted in his bid to fight off these men. But the emotional scars are just as raw. Boseman is a dapper, talented individual brimming with ambition, who is ultimately destroyed by the claustrophobic, racist society that prevents its fulfillment. He is simultaneously overconfident and under-confident. His deep, wild-eyed frustration is graphically depicted by his constantly trying to get into a door in the studio that eventually opens to reveal a brick wall.
Critique and Conclusion
Despite the brilliance of the acting, Ma Rainey feels a bit too much like a play, and its languid pace and long monologues can be tiring. More could have been done in the city of Chicago. Angelica Jade Bastién criticized the film’s downplaying of Ma Rainey’s queerness, and felt that the movie never really explored its big ideas. In contrast, Peter Bradshaw described Ma Rainey as “A detonation of pure acting firepower…ferociously intelligent and violently focused, an opera of passion and pain,” while Lex Pryor similarly regarded the film as “a story of survival, joy, and pain.” This is a vintage offering by America’s Black Bard – August Wilson – that vividly depicts the melancholy blues, Black suffering, and white exploitation.
Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.