A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do!
I admit that I know next to nothing about the blues. I’ve listened to the blues performed live several times, in Chicago and New Orleans, but as a musical genre, I’m completely ignorant of its history and context. Country music would be a close second. (My mother decided country music was her thing in the seventies and eighties, so I have an unconscious awareness of its tropes and stylings.)
With this in mind, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a movie I can really appreciate for giving me some much needed schooling on the blues. Not that the movie is a history lesson or documentary. Ma Rainey is based on an August Wilson play of the same name. Like the play, the movie is a work of fiction where the lead character is based on an actual person. Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, she started out as a performer in black minstrel shows, then vaudeville. In 1914, when she was roughly 28, she began performing as a blues singer, touring the south extensively.
The movie opens with Ma Rainey performing in a crowded tent in Barnesville, Georgea, packed with men, women and children. With her greasepaint makeup, violet sequin dress, a fan of ostrich feathers and gold-plated teeth, Ma Rainey definitely makes a singular impression. To me, her stage costume was reminiscent of kabuki or opera, where you need to play not just the customers in the front row but the entire audience. Ma Rainey’s singing is at a low register, folks at the time called it moaning. She sings of desire and loss, the essence of the blues.
Ma Rainey then presents a montage of newspaper articles and photographs, the former beckoning African Americans in the south to head North, the later still-life photographs of those accepting the invitation. The photographs are not exactly still-life, however, as the subjects gently acknowledge and smile at the camera. At the end of the montage Ma Rainey and her band are shown performing at a theatre in Chicago. Dressed in blue velvet, flanked by a bevy of dancers, her band now dressed in tuxedos, we see Ma Rainey at the height of her career, when she was about 37. She had diverted her tour from the South to Chicago to record songs for Paramount, who called her “The Mother of the Blues”.
The theater performance reveals the characters who will play key roles in the events that follow. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is the focal point of the performance and the movie. She is a force of nature on stage, confident and mesmerizing. She is unwilling to give up the spotlight even for a few seconds to trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). Levee has eyes for Ma Rainey’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), a young lady who is mainly interested in having a good time. Levee’s interest in Dussie is keenly observed by trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), the de facto bandleader who struggles to keep Levee in check and Ma Rainey happy. While the performance given by Ma Rainey and her dancers is energetic and riveting, the scene is edited way too much, like a music video from the eighties. Director George C. Wolfe should have trusted the performers here, and not tried to add energy to the performance through editing. The scene is good, but it could have been brilliant. Fortunately, the rest of the movie more than makes up for this lack of judgement.
Presumably the day after the show, Cutler and the other members of the band head for a recording studio in downtown Chicago. They get off the elevated train and immediately recognize how much they stand out on the street. They are smartly dressed, but are the only black people around. They hurriedly make their way to the recording studio. While the band waits for Ma Rainey to arrive, they joke, practice their songs and make fun of each other like brothers. Each member of the band gives a monologue that explains who they are as a character, and also represent different philosophies that speak to the African American experience of that time.
Piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman) complains that all young black men want to have a good time. He is a firm believer in working hard, keeping out of trouble and looking out for your fellow man. His belief is that unless all African Americans pull for each other, their lot in life will never dramatically change. Toledo is seen more as a scold by Levee, a member of the prior generation who may have been a slave himself, or the child of a slave.
Bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) relates a tale of a man who sold the soul to the devil in exchange for money and power. Similar to “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, or the legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, Slow Drag’s monologue is a cautionary tale about the consequences of taking the easy road to success, and knowing who you’re selling out to. Since the man who sold his soul to the devil went north, just like other African Americans during the Great Migration, I’m guessing that white people are symbolized as the devil in the story. The parable of Slow Drag’s story might be that while African Americans may look for white people for a way out of poverty and possibly gain prosperity, they should treat their dealings with white people with extreme caution, since white people usually don’t have African American’s best wishes at heart.
Unlike the stories told by bandmates, Levee’s is one he witnessed first-hand. When he was eight, his father had to go to town for planting supplies. A group of white men tried to gang-rape Levee’s mother. Levee tried to stop it by stabbing one of the attackers, but ended up getting seriously cut himself. The attackers left because they were afraid Levee would bleed to death. When Levee’s father returns, he surprisingly sells his land to one of the attackers, but secretly plans his revenge. He killed four of the attackers before he himself was killed. Levee believes that he can get what he wants from the white men he deals with if he puts on a happy face and is overly friendly.
Cutler is the get along to go along type, falling back on religion when times get rough. He describes a story of a black minister who is forced to dance for a group of white men, who only let him go after he has danced to the point of exhaustion. They tear up his Bible and rip the cross from his neck. Levee constantly picks apart Cutler’s story for minor factual errors, then proclaims that it doesn’t matter if black people have faith in God, since God hates black people. Given what happened to Levee when he was a child, one can see why he would feel that way. He doesn’t understand that faith in God is rewarded in the afterlife, not on Earth.
Speaking of Ma Rainey, she commands respect wherever she is, and with whomever she is with at the time. She knows that without her acquiescence, Sturdyvant will only have blank records to sell. All of the money Paramount will make will be because of her talent and name recognition, so she extracts all that she can from them while she has the power to do so. She won’t sing without an ice cold Coke. She won’t sing Levee’s arrangement of her song because she doesn’t want to admit that Levee’s version is what the people want. Her nephew Sylvester will perform the spoken introduction to her song even though he stutters because she wants him to succeed. To her credit, on the seventh take, Sylvester is able to do his part without a stutter, and Ma Rainey’s faith in him is rewarded.
Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma Rainey’s manager, understands the inherent power struggle between her and Mel, the record producer from Paramount, and frantically tries to keep the peace between both of them throughout the day. This battle of wills is not unlike most other producer-talent struggles, where each side believes they are the main ones responsible for the end product. Irvin knows that Mel’s criticisms of Ma Rainey’s lack of punctuality and professionalism, how much the session is costing them, are petty and meaningless in the long term scheme of things, and he aptly serves as a buffer between the two until the recordings are done.
When it comes to her band, Ma Rainey, she demands complete loyalty. She has entrusted Cutler with keeping the band in line, and he does his best with Levee. Ultimately, Levee demands respect without having paid his dues. He doesn’t seem to care that Ma Rainey has put in the effort to become a star, that she’s earned her success through her own blood, sweat and tears. Ma Rainey tolerates Levee’s antics because she recognizes his talent, but does not want to cede any decision making authority to him. When Levee keeps insisting on doing things his way, Ma Rainey has no problem firing him on the spot. There are plenty of other trumpet players out there that would probably kill for a good paying, steady gig as a tour.
Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag, three wise men with years of experience on Levee, each tried to give Levee advice to live by. For Cutler, it was that having faith can help you through difficult times. For Toledo, it was sticking together and helping each other out. For Slow Drag, it was to be wary in your dealings with white people. Unfortunately, Levee heard but ignored all of their advice. When Mel takes advantage of Levee by paying him $5 a song, Levee is crushed. Levee and Toledo have been at odds all day, so when Levee kills Toledo over a scuff mark on a shoe, it’s the last straw in a day full of personal setbacks for him. Levee’s act of violence is shocking, but not surprising. (Cutler’s words from earlier in the movie prove to be prophetic: You gonna fix yourself to have bad luck. Ain’t nothing gonna work out for you.)
The performances all around are exceptional, and I can easily see Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman being nominated. While Boseman’s final film performance is brilliant and moving, his physical state was shocking to see. His battle with colon cancer took its toll on him. From when I originally saw him in Captain America: Civil War (2016) to now, he looks like he easily lost fifty pounds or more. He gives the performance his all, even though he reportedly needed to lie down between takes.
Viola Davis has many great scenes in Ma Rainey, but a poignant monolog where she explains why she treats Irvin and Mel the way she does, is the standout. She knows that once they have her voice recorded, they can make money off of her without her being involved anymore. She also defines what the blues means to her. It’s a showstopper of a scene that shows why Davis is one of the most renowned actresses today.
Since Ma Rainey is only an hour and a half, I highly recommend watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Legacy Brought to Screen, the “making of” documentary that is also on Netflix. It’s only thirty-one minutes, and provided me with some much needed context for the movie and its characters.