Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Mega-powerful document of art and race

Is there truly a musical genre that could be described as more hardcore than the blues? Born of the appalling abuse and disenfranchisement of Black American people in the Deep South, it appeared like some oscillating sonic deity commanded by a multitude of artists to stick two fingers up at a monstrous status quo. Bolstered by raw anger and confidence in the face of sadistic white adversity, blues musicians related tales of poverty, discrimination, superstition and bad luck (in love, in money, and just in general) with rage, sadness, humour or a mixture thereof that fostered a subculture built on determination and resistance. Continuing to the present in varied iterations, the blues carries the honour of being the style in which the whole gamut of human experience sounds the mightiest, as far as I’m concerned.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s new adaptation of the acclaimed eponymous play by August Wilson, is a superbly acted, intelligent, ferocious and sad historic snapshot inspired by real-life ”Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey. Covering topics such as the necessity of controlling one’s artistic endeavours, the unscrupulous exploitation of such art by rapacious parasites, racism and volatile ambition, it is a tour de force of performance and a remarkable swan song for the dearly departed Chadwick Boseman.

Rainey (Viola Davis) is a hard-as-nails singer who will not tolerate bullshit from a living soul. Guarding her music with a necessarily protective ferocity, she outright refuses to entertain the notion of rewrites or different introductions, regardless of mass appeal. This testy lack of fear puts her at odds with Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), her talent manager and recording studio boss respectively, as well as her cocky and ultra-ambitious young trumpeter Levee Green (Boseman). If Ma don’t like it, you ain’t doing it, and that was all she wrote.

One sweltering 1927 afternoon in Sturdyvant’s Chicago studio, Ma is tired, missing Georgia and thoroughly fed up with Mel and Irvin’s persistent pleas to alter the musical numbers and questioning of her decision to have her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) do a spoken intro to one of her tracks. Amid this fracas, Levee constantly tussles with fellow band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) as he smugly waxes lyrical about his experience and talent. He compounds this tension by exasperating Ma with his lecherous attentions toward her young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and attempting to shoehorn his own variation on her track ‘Black Bottom’, confident that his sale of several original songs to Sturdyvant will catapult him into the big time.

What should be a straightforward recording session becomes a powder keg of emotion as past traumas and apocryphal tales centred on religious phenomena are shared, the core band’s playfully bickering camaraderie anchored by the incredible fury of Ma Rainey and Levee, two people with deep scars to bear and a canny understanding of the white establishment, though the lessons they’ve learned and people they’ve become doesn’t bode for the most beneficent working atmosphere. Ma can’t stand Levee’s wandering eyes and insolence, Levee feels that he is above what he considers her myopic obstinacy. Before the day is over, tears shall be shed and futures shall be irrevocably changed, but will anyone be any the wiser?

I adore any instance where a film successfully commutes the staginess of a theatre production to the screen. Some of my favourite films of all time never, or at least virtually never, leave their focal location (Rope, Reservoir Dogs, 12 Angry Men) and it’s a narrative choice that ensures unparalleled thematic fortification providing that it’s done right. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is no exception. From the moment our focal entourage enter the studio in moderately good spirits, the oppressive heat is indicative that this is unlikely to end on a happy note. Davis cuts an intimidating yet ultimately sympathetic figure as Ma, a passionate and hard-working artist who never considers capitulating to sleazy white music moguls or lawmen, no matter how much they try to smarm or bully her into submission. She has been dragged up hard in a world where her music is the only thing she has the ultimate say in, knowing all too well how the powers-that-be attempt to stifle her intent and integrity just to make a quick buck. She commands the respect of all of her crew bar Levee, though she’s dealt with his type many times.

Boseman shines in his final performance, and there’s an extratextual power in the fact that his last appearance on-screen is arguably his darkest. Levee’s initial personality is one that could be politely referred to as unlikable, his insouciant, condescending swagger and extremely high opinion of his own importance leaving a bit of a sour taste. It is only with circumstantial goading that we become privy to what maketh the man, a history marked by the abject horrors of racism and a genuine toughness that remains tragically untouched by the kind of street-smarts and pragmatic cynicism possessed by the likes of Ma. Levee is intelligent and deeply determined, but his untuned bitterness and blind zeal for industry power just place him front-and-centre for more torment. It’s a shockingly emotive conclusion to Boseman’s career and will easily be remembered as one of his greatest moments.

Driven by the absolutely brilliant performances of Davis and Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a timeless and moving look at art within the context of the early 20th-century Black experience. Though punctuated by levity and satisfying moments of non-negotiable assertiveness, there is an axiomatic austerity in its depiction of problems that continue to be swept under the carpet, whether certain people would like to admit it or not. A crowning achievement to close 2020, it deserves to be seen by all.

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