The space between watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and analyzing it is wider than one could ever imagine. There’s so much to be captivated by in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the classic August Wilson play — the costumes, the charming staginess of its presentation, and the quick, smooth cadence of the dialogue. The story takes place in a time before subtext was text, when people didn’t pretend to know everything about each other. If you wanted to know someone, you would have to wait for them to tell you with the faint hope that they’re telling the truth, because there was no way to check. These conditions made it easier to mythologize oneself, flaunting an understanding of the world you may not actually have. Wilson showed a strong grasp of this in the way he wrote his male characters, each one shielding his pain with trash talk and aggression. And despite the title, masculine pain is the subject of this movie.
The story focuses on Levee, Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Dray (respectively played by Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts), the backing band for legendary blues singer Ma Rainey. One fateful day in a Chicago studio, they have lively debates while waiting for their sharp-tongued boss to be ready to record an album. Bassist Slow Drag plays mediator, pianist Toledo laments the stagnation of Black people in society (citing their preoccupation with having a good time), trombonist Cutler talks about the importance of God and faith, and trumpeter Levee talks about himself. Levee is the real star of the film, a young hotshot with a dark past who has something to prove. For the others, this is just another workday, but for Levee, it’s his chance to appeal to the white producers and start his own career. He buys new shoes, perfects a song, and sets his sights on Ma’s girlfriend. He continually disparages Ma’s sound as “jug band” music and refuses to practice. Throughout the film, Cutler keeps warning him to just “Play the piece” and avoid showboating, but he pays this no mind.
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Those unfamiliar with the play will likely be surprised that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t really about Rainey at all, given that the marketing heavily implied otherwise. Further confusing matters is the fact that she’s played by Viola Davis, who commands attention every time she’s on screen. But she is essentially an accessory to the wider ideological exploration of the plight of the American Black man in the 1920s, mainly appearing in small interludes between the men’s discussions. She shares nuggets of wisdom, but rarely does anyone acknowledge what she’s saying.
Rainey’s relationship to the narrative is a great example of the way Black male writers portray Black mothers — watching from the sidelines, only intervening when needed. In film, these figures are always played by strong, commanding actresses, and yet we are still asked to think of them as secondary. Davis stumbles clumsily in an ill-conceived fat suit. She pales in comparison to Mo’Nique’s nuanced take on the same role in Bessie, Dee Rees’s 2015 biopic of Bessie Smith in which Rainey has a significant part. For those looking for a story in this setting that’s actually about Black women, that film intelligently explores the queerness and sensuality of performance, as well as the specific struggles that fat Black women have to deal with in the entertainment industry.
Boseman fares much better in his final role, demonstrating that he had the range to play villains as well as heroes. Halfway through the film, he delivers a five-minute monologue with staggering power and precision. It’s incredible work, made all the more potent by his recent untimely death. Domingo and the rest of the supporting cast turn in lovely performances as well, reminding us of the underappreciated craft of character actors. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about ego and the supposed justice in allowing Black men to embrace it after decades of their degradation. While Levee struggles to express to his bandmates why he thinks he should act like a big shot, Ma is walking around with the power and confidence he desires. He believes that kind of life is owed to him, and that he should cut corners to get it. And it makes sense that he would feel that way from his limited understanding of life beyond his own experience. We don’t have to like him, but his pain is deeply felt. The tragedy is that he doesn’t know any better.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix.