Near the beginning of Act 2 of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1982 play about the famous blues singer and the complex rage born of American racism, a band argues during a recording break. Levee, the flash-tempered young trumpet player with big dreams, castigates his three fellow musicians, who are all older than he is, for being too satisfied with their station in life, with the “bone somebody done throwed you.” He’ll never be satisfied, he says, and he’d sell his soul to the devil if doing so would allow him to see his ambitions realized.
Cutler, the band’s leader, reprimands Levee for his blasphemy. But Toledo, the piano player — and the only literate man in the band, amid the segregation of 1920s Chicago — tells Cutler that while the group hasn’t sold their souls to the devil, they have done something similar: “We done sold Africa for the price of tomatoes,” he says. “We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him. ... We done sold who we are in order to become someone else. We’s imitation white men.”
There’s some disagreement, but Levee, being Levee, is stuck on himself. “I ain’t no imitation white man,” he says. “And I don’t want to be no white man.” As soon as he can start his own band and make the records that Mr. Sturdyvant, the producer they’re working for, told him he could make, “I’m gonna be like Ma and tell the white man just what he can do.”
Ma is the Ma Rainey of the play’s title, and the band has just watched her threaten to walk out of the studio, prompting the two white men managing the recording session to beg her to stay. “That’s the way I’m gonna be!” Levee proclaims. “Make the white man respect me!”
“The white man don’t care nothing about Ma,” says Cutler. “The colored folks made Ma a star.”
Wilson crammed into that page the nutshell of the conflict that drives Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the third of his Pittsburgh Cycle plays (and the second to be adapted to film), which chronicle Black American life in the 20th century. When the story takes place (in 1927), Ma Rainey is massively famous; she brings in huge profits for the record company, and when she asks for a Coke during the recording session, she gets her Coke. But the request is as much a flex on her part as it is a desire for a cold soft drink. Ma always knows that the power she exerts — as a bona fide but Black celebrity — has its edges, and she chafes against them. Getting her way in small matters is a way of compensating for working in a world that sees her as, inherently, a problem to be dealt with — not because she’s a diva, but because she’s Black.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom bowed on Broadway 36 years ago, telling a story set 60 years prior, which means its story is now nearly a century old. And it’s more than ready for the big-screen treatment. Denzel Washington has made it his personal mission to adapt all 10 of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays into films, having started with the sixth, Fences, in 2017. He serves as a producer on this one.
Fences earned Viola Davis an Oscar. Now she returns as Ma Rainey, with a performance poised to repeat the feat. Not that it’s the same performance. In Fences, she is the brave but beaten-down wife, who does her duty even when it’s killing her. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she is both wholly in charge and seemingly not far from a meltdown, riding a fine line between wielding her power and watching it slip away.
Ma is traveling with her much younger lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who seems more in love with access to power than with Ma herself, and Ma’s nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). They’ve come to Chicago so Ma can record with her band: Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee (Chadwick Boseman).
Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe retained Wilson’s incredible dialogue but opened up the play’s setting just a tad, so that it works on screen. A few added moments flesh out the story. The play, for instance, starts in the recording studio, where Ma’s white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the white producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) argue about how to handle Ma and the band during the recording session. But the movie starts at a concert, with Ma enthralling the masses but shooting daggers at Levee, who’s slipped on stage to literally steal the spotlight with a trumpet solo. She fought for that spotlight, and he’s not going to take it from her.
We get to the recording studio soon enough, but not before the film establishes itself at the start of the Great Migration, a decades-long period during which black Americans migrated north in droves, looking for a more equitable life and opportunities unavailable to them in the Jim Crow South. By the end of the 1920s, when the play is set, a tenth of the Black population in the American South had migrated north. By the 1970s, that figure increased to nearly 40 percent.
The north was no paradise. Racism was everywhere; practices such as redlining kept neighborhoods segregated, widening the generational wealth gap, exposing gross prejudices, and leading to long-lasting effects we still feel today.
Wilson set Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in that historical context specifically because it’s a story about power, about how seemingly powerful Black artists like Ma and the music they made would be exploited by people who probably didn’t consider themselves to be racist. After all, they worked with Ma, didn’t they?
Levee is the other focal point of the film — a counterbalance to Ma, who’s seen it all. The role is Chadwick Boseman’s last, stunning, heartbreaking performance. Boseman (who throughout his career played characters like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, and Black Panther’s T’Challa) passed away in August at age 43 from a colon cancer few people knew he had, and his turn here makes his death feel horribly unjust.
Boseman plays Levee with an electricity that feels urgent. This young man is aware that every aspect of the world around him is designed to work against him. He’s not optimistic, but he’s determined. He knows he can make the future happen for himself in the way he wants it to happen. He’s seen some horrible things in his life, but he is his own man and he’s going to make his own way. He’s writing songs for Sturdyvant. He’s remixing the blues and coming up with new ways to make music. He will not be kept down.
And so Levee carries around so much rage, sizzling just beneath the surface. His anger seems directed at men who hurt his family when he was young, but as the story wears on it starts to become clear: He’s just mad at the whole situation that he and many other Black people have found themselves in. They have the illusion of power. Levee can go out and buy a nice pair of shoes for himself; he can entertain thousands from a stage; he can dream of a future where he has his own band, his own muscle to flex.
And yet, kicking down doors too often uncovers walls.
On the one hand, I’m not sure Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really succeeds as a film. It doesn’t have much of a style visually, and it feels trapped and stifled at times. (Wolfe is best known as a celebrated and formidable theater director.) When you watch a play on stage, you get to see the actors working together all at once in wide shots; in the movie, we’re more frequently up close, observing their faces. We lose some of the perspective we’d have in a theater. And Wilson’s inimitable dialogue loses just the tiniest bit of punch when the mouths speaking it are flattened on a screen, rather than breathing the same air as the audience.
On the other hand, there’s a way all of this works. For one thing, the hemmed-in setting is representative of the characters’ lives, restricted by a country that says they’re free but holds out only one palm’s worth of freedom and keeps the rest behind its back. We see that menacing tease over and over again. The band members can’t go into a drugstore to buy a Coke, because the white men inside glower and block their way. A car accident involving Ma’s automobile risks erupting into a brawl, or worse, until her white manager Irvin intervenes. Ma can throw her weight around and get Irvin to beg her not to walk out the door, but his begging is driven by money, and money is fleeting. Levee has been asked by Sturdyvant to write songs, but that’s no guarantee Levee will get what he’s looking for.
The inherently disposable quality of their existence, their replaceability, is something all of the Black characters in the film are sharply aware of. They respond and cope in different ways. Ma takes whatever she can get and yields as little as possible. Levee screams at the heavens, cursing any God that would let Black men live the way they’re living in silence. And it leads to a kind of self-hatred that ends in self-immolation.
The best plays are often more situation than plot. They capture, unravel, and singe the edges of the power struggles between people who are standing on shifting sand, letting the upper hand change from moment to moment. In retaining the feel of a play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hangs onto that inherently theatrical quality.
And it emphasizes the matter of power, which lies at the root of this film and its characters’ world. The end of the movie piles up the evidence that even the power we think we’ve seen Levee and Ma exercise is easy for men like Irvin and Sturdyvant to sweep away, like leftovers on the table after they’ve had their fill. And I gasped at the final scene, which adds one small moment — as the film did at the beginning — to show us what’s been going on all along. Respect was never what the white man had in mind.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on December 18.