Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Ma Rainey

Playwright August Wilson












MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM             C                                                                               USA  (94 mi)  2020  ‘Scope  d: George C. Wolfe

My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.                                                            —August Wilson, 2004 interview, An Interview with August Wilson - Believer Magazine 

White folk don’t understand about the blues.  They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.                                                                                                                                      —Ma Rainey (Viola Davis)

While any August Wilson play is to be celebrated, this Netflix movie is wrong-footed and overpraised, largely over-acted, going for grandiose moments, failing to capture the tone and sheer artistry of Wilson, who elevates dialogue through the understated naturalism of the performers, where their collective voices emulate the black experience in America.  Writing a play for every decade of the 20th century, this one written in 1982 is set in the 1920’s, an era of the Jim Crow South when the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged blacks to migrate north where there were available jobs working on the railroads, like butlers, porters, waiters, and cooks.  Poorly edited and not particularly well-made, the director has a long history in the theater, but is a relative novice in the film industry, where the look of the film is pure artifice, like taking place on a Hollywood set, showing no interest whatsoever in capturing real life, where the entire film exists in a netherworld of make believe, where there isn’t a single likeable character in the entire film, which is a bit shocking, as nearly every August Wilson character exudes personality and appeal, which is why his stature as a playwright is so revered, as his characters seem to be speaking just to us.  Initially influenced by the blues music of Bessie Smith, offering the unfiltered language of raw poetry to describe the black experience, Wilson found commonality in sharing similar truths, using the voice of ordinary people to express profound revelations, caught up in circumstances many viewers can relate to, providing a sense of urgency to everyday life.  Except for an opening number set in a juke joint in the mysterious backwoods of the South, the film is set entirely in one sunny day in Chicago in 1927 when Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band arrive at a recording studio to record a few songs, with Davis lip-synching in the role, actually sung by back-up singer Maxayn Lewis, who once performed with Ike & Tina Turner as one of the Ikettes.  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, as the incendiary experience is given a racial undertone of discord and conflict, where it’s clear the hot-headed trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final performance before his untimely death from colon cancer) has his own ideas of how the band should play, making it no secret that his aspirations are beyond playing backup for Ma Rainey, that he wants to form his own band and record his own songs, immediately set straight by Colman Domingo as Cutler, the trombonist who calls the shots (with Rainey viewing him as the leader of the band), reminding the young upstart that the band plays what Ma Rainey tells them to play, pure and simple.  Anything else will surely butt heads with the “Mother of the Blues,” who runs the show, as Ma Rainey was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville, a cabaret-style developed out of minstrel shows that catered largely to white audiences, and an authentic black Southern folk expression, a symbol of racial pride, emerging from the common experience of her audience, developing a closeness and familiarity to working people, making over 100 recordings in the 1920’s, writing many of her own songs, including Bo Weevil Blues, Ma Rainey - Bo-Weavil Blues - YouTube (2:46), and Moonshine Blues, Ma Rainey - Moonshine Blues (1923) YouTube (3:05), producing music alongside Louis Armstrong and pianist Thomas A Dorsey.  Never achieving the massive acclaim of Bessie Smith, who she helped mentor, she nonetheless provides her own authenticity and unapologetic swagger to the blues, an openly queer woman who had love affairs with women, dressed in satin gowns with ostrich feathers, and a mouthful of gold teeth, expressing a black female narrative that is strong and powerful, offering an intimate glimpse into telling the story of black life.    

As the musicians sit around waiting for Ma to arrive, including Glynn Turman as Toledo, the piano player, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, the bass player, and Cutler, Levee arrives wearing a brand new pair of shoes, spouting off asserting his own independence, while the others call him a fool and try to reign him back to reality, reminding him that he’s just hired to play, not to run things.  Nonetheless, he has ambition, with a willingness to change with the times, and loves the spotlight when his improvisations take center stage, which rubs Ma the wrong way, thinking this boy is more trouble than he’s worth, already getting the idea to fire him when they get to Memphis.  Cutler has already heard Ma’s reservations, while the others sense the inevitable, yet Levee refuses to be denied, thinking “I got my time coming.”  Right off the bat viewers sense something is wrong, not only with the overcaked make-up of Ma Rainey, where greasepaint is smeared all over her face, but in the portrayal of a star as an unsympathetic figure, never appearing happy, instead she remains aloof and to herself, where in the one song she does sing it is the voice of Viola Davis flirtatiously singing into the ear of her latest fling, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) showed off as her arm candy, hands and arms all over her, really not giving a damn what anyone else thinks.  Yet her defiant assertiveness reflects the wearying aspects of the business, “I don’t stand for no shit,” openly crossing the lines of white middle class respectability, as she has to continually stand up to and fight with white promoters and record producers, whose instinct is to devalue and underpay blacks, reaping all the profits to themselves, stealing their royalties, which is the history of black exploitation in the music business and an ultimate betrayal of the American Dream.  Yet the tone of the film is off-putting, never capturing that August Wilson rhythm where dialogue literally sings, instead actors either speak too fast, preen for the camera, or are seemingly in love with their own profiles, each with their own relationship with a camera, instead of a collective group trying to make a living in the era just prior to the Depression.  With too much attention paid to each individual, scene by scene, the direction is all wrong, losing the focus of the play, allowing actors to single themselves out and overact, especially the two stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, both mentioned as deserving Oscar winners, yet it’s only Colman Domingo as Cutler who offers an understated performance, where his vision of simplicity and clarity onscreen is well-needed, but the rest are completely out of rhythm, where the director is just not that interested in the best way to express Wilson’s material, or how to transform a play into a movie, instead turning this into generic movie-of-the-week territory, continually using stereotypes and clichéd images, where it’s actually uncomfortable to watch much of this simply due to a pathetic lack of aesthetic vision, which was first and foremost in the eyes of the playwright and in each stage presentation.  Films seem to dilute the power of the play, but there are rare exceptions, like Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winning 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, Sidney Lumet’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), or Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) and Fool for Love (1985).  Losing the tone of the playwright’s authentic voice, this feels more like Rob Marshall’s ill-advised version of Bob Fosse’s CHICAGO (2002), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but shouldn’t have, as it’s a substitute and shortcut version of the real thing, using plenty of bail-out edits, showing complete disregard for Fosse’s extended choreographic artistry, which is the genuine article.   

Much of the film reveals blacks talking among themselves in a relaxed manner, yet a dominant focus of their thoughts is the inevitable weariness of living in Jim Crow times, as these men have been traumatically shaped by the continual racial debasement from white men, with Toledo pointing out the utter disdain whites have for them, “The colored man, he’s the leftovers.”  Levee indicates his mother was nearly gang-raped by a group of white men when he was only 8-years old, but stopped when one of them knifed him in his chest while trying to protect her, leaving him a bloody mess with a permanent lifelong scar.  Afterwards he rages against God, asking where was he when this was happening, as he called out his name, but there was no answer, only an emptiness, feeling abandoned and disappointed, with no hope of salvation.  But Levee views his elders like some has-been Uncle Tom Negroes, instead feeling full of himself, showing utter defiance, brimming with confidence, believing it’s a new day and era, that his future knows no bounds.  Having faith in himself, however, isn’t the same thing as whites believing in him, as he’s viewed exactly like the others, as an afterthought, as cheap labor, or hired help.  Toledo and Cutler have been down that road before, but their advice is unheeded, with Levee singularly thinking he’s somehow different from the rest, even taking a shot with Ma’s girl Dussie Mae, who’s just a sex object in the film, viewed similarly by both Ma and Levee, both willing to watch her strut her stuff, until Levee gets his comeuppance.  But even Ma Rainey knows the score, in full antagonistic display with her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), owner of the recording studio, who’s sick and tired of dealing with Ma acting like she’s queen of the universe, where they have to feign politeness.  He nearly blows a gasket just thinking about it.  Ma reveals what it’s really all about, “You’re colored and you can make them some money, then you’re alright with them.  Otherwise, you’re just a dog in some alley,” knowing they don’t give a rat’s ass about her. “They don’t care nothing about me.  All they want is my voice,” suggesting whites will pay her some respect until they get the recording they want.  After that, you’re yesterday’s news, they don’t need you anymore, as the record will line their own pockets, selling to both a white and black audience, paying the musicians, and even the star of the show, a small pittance for their time, raking in the bucks afterwards.  As for Levee, he thinks he’s got the white man wrapped around his finger, only to discover he’ll pay $5 for a song, but won’t let him record, claiming they’re worthless, that he has no use for them, swearing he can’t sell them, but he’ll “take them off your hands.”  All hopes and aspirations are effectively killed on the spot, his dreams dashed, where he’s just a nobody like everybody else.  For one day’s work, plenty happens, where dealing with the disappointment only begins to describe the trouble, as it’s a lifetime of disappointment all wrapped up into a few brief moments that will forever change his life.  There’s a humorous scene in a recent film, Radha Blank’s The 40-Year Old Version (2020), where a white producer’s recommendation to a black artist is to whiten up the play in order to reach a greater audience, which has the effect of suffocating her authentic voice, replacing a black message with a whitened-down version, which is exactly what happens at the end of the movie, showing a white band (that doesn’t exist in the play) playing the black music that was sold for peanuts, but whitening it up, all of whom were paid, as there was plenty of money to go around, effectively punctuating how black musicians were exploited during Jim Crow times, with whites basically stealing their music, living off the proceeds, while the artists live the rest of their lives in segregated poverty.    

The only one of Wilson’s cycle of ten plays set outside of the city of Pittsburgh, with screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting the playwright’s words for the film, musical compositions written by Branford Marsalis, with Denzel Washington serving as a producer, the theatrical version of the play runs two and one-half hours, with a brief intermission, nearly a full hour longer than the film version, so plenty was left on the cutting floor, nearly 40% of the play, so it’s not surprising the film lacks much of Wilson’s urgency, where the condensed version becomes something of an insult to his legacy.  Making matters worse, there’s a patronizing explanatory making-of-the-film documentary that follows immediately afterwards on Netflix, attempting to place an historical context on what was just viewed, something similar to what Steven Spielberg did with his historical films, sending out educational packets to be used in a school setting that supposedly added deeper context to what was altogether missing in the film itself.  The arrogance of this act is indescribable, as it assumes the material is worthy of a history lesson, yet it’s a fictional recreation, where the author takes poetic liberties, so the hubris to teach a history lesson afterwards assumes the makers of the film felt they touched a reality that is altogether missing in the movie, so they packed on additional material.  Can you imagine August Wilson’s response to making an additional movie, shown after the play, to discuss the merits and historical context of his work?  Wilson’s point of view, one assumes, is that it’s all in the play, where learning your history while evaluating and reflecting on the material is part of the viewing experience.  What makes Wilson’s plays so universal is that the core humanity is contained within, something relatable to different people from all walks of life and from anywhere around the globe.  It’s a sad state of affairs in Hollywood today that suggests we all need accompanying supplementary material to help us understand something that contains a movie-of-the-week reality.  The problem isn’t the historical message, or lack thereof, it’s with the film itself, as it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.     

A Reconsideration: Hearing Ma Rainey   1987 essay written by blues scholar Steven C. Tracy

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