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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey

It's a dance. It's not specifically her butt that they're talking about.
I swear it's a dance

dir: George C. Wolfe


It’s not fair, I know, but this is the 11,780th time where I’m going to do a very annoying thing I often do, which is talk about movies other than the one being reviewed, and I have no shame about it. Well, shame enough to mention it, but not enough to do anything about it.

When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods last year, I thought, damn, Chadwick Boseman is great in this like he is in everything, but the film is a bit of a shitty chore to sit through.

And then, in the worst year of living memory for most of the world, Chadwick Boseman died, taking most of us other than Chadwick Boseman by surprise. He knew, though, that he was going out at 42.

Black Panther is dead. King T’Challa, of the great Afrofuturist nation of Wakanda, is dead.

I felt like an absolute ungrateful goblin for saying anything bad ever about anything he was ever in, especially Da 5 Bloods, which I now have to pretend is a better film than it is in order to not look churlish.

And so, with an actor I absolutely adore having died, and having the opportunity to see his last ever performance, it puts me in just as much of a bind. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about Ma Rainey, despite the fact that she was a living and breathing person, nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, but most of the flick is about Levee, Boseman’s character, his hopes, dreams and demons. He certainly gets the majority of the dialogue. And he gets as much screen time as you would hope in this very wordy drama (based on the play by August Wilson).

Problem is, damn it, it’s based on a play.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is something of a grotesque figure. I don’t just mean her appearance, which is a lot of work, a lot of body suit stuff, a lot of garish makeup, with a tremendous actress underneath all of it. She is kind of a prototypical diva before such was fashionable. Her records sell, at this time in 1927. The Great Migration has been happening since Reconstruction, and a lot of people, meaning African-Americans, have been moving north in pursuit of jobs.

And she is their queen, of entertainment, at least. Her records sell not only in the South, but in the big northern cities too, so she needs must travel to Chicago to record another album.

The length of the film mostly covers a day at the studio as all and sundry await Ma Rainey’s arrival. Her band consists of three old timers who know how to play how she wants and keep their heads down, a young upstart trumpet player recently joined with delusions of grandeur (that would be Levee, Chadwick’s character) and the two brothers who run the studio and sell the records.

This is an era where they pay you for your singing and playing to be recorded, and then you’re out the door. If the recording works out, Ma will make $25 dollars for her time, and for the theft of her voice and talent. I mean, I know the studios have been exploiting the talent for a century, but, honestly, did things ever really improve. And when African-American entrepreneurs opened their own studios and produced their own records, did they exploit the ‘talent’ any less. Were Suge Knight or Berry Gordy Jnr any kinder or gentler to any of the people they ruthlessly tormented on their rosters at Death Row Records or Motown Records respectively just because they happened to be African-American?

Well, maybe bringing a convicted murderer like Suge into the argument isn’t very helpful, but the point remains that people who control the means of production tend to make more money that the people with the talent the public craves, until the ‘talent’ start controlling, producing and holding on to the rights of their own output.

This is the 1920s, though. That’s not going to happen. Even at her most difficult, most demanding, and most narcissistic, Ma knows it too. She’s at the mercy of these record producers, even if for convenience’s sake they pretend to fawn over her.

There are a lot of telling scenes, but probably the most telling is Ma leaving her hotel, with her entourage, reveling in the horror of the white folk watching her swan around like she’s not only the queen of the blues but queen of everything else too, with the keys to the city. In case it needs to be pointed out: America was very racist a long time ago but absolutely definitely not any more. The funny thing about setting this in Chicago in the 20s is that Chicago then was not like Chicago now, demographically and socioeconomically speaking. Back then, based solely on my knowledge of movies, Chicago was entirely populated with Italian American gangsters, corrupt Irish cops and politicians, and, um, redheaded dancing girls? There were no people of colour even as the help.

These days, of course, Chicago is very different. The mafia got tired and retired, the corrupt Irish cops and politicians are now no longer just Irish, but still predominately white, and of course the proportion of the African-American population of America’s 3rd biggest city is about 30%, as opposed to the 4% that it would have been back in the 1920s.

So when she walks around minding her own business, well, not walking so much as strutting proudly, it’s almost like she’s feeding off of their racial hatred; as if their discomfort at her existence and perhaps envy at her confidence is some sort of fuel for her.

And it puts us in the audience in a difficult position. Because, how can I put this delicately, she’s a bit of an arsehole. Yet, you know, thinking a character is an arsehole even if they have plenty of reasons for being insecure and lashing out still feels a bit, um, racially insensitive.

The thing is, she isn’t even the character that does the worst things in this story, but I’m not going to spoil that part of it, because when it happens it’s genuinely shocking, and it also renders the story less satisfying and less enjoyable, for my money. It’s a horror ending for a story which up til that point, was pretty strong in showing the forces and stories that shaped some of these characters.

If there are characters to admire in the story, for me it’s the three journeymen musicians who waver between gently mocking and trying to genuinely advise the young upstart Levee. Yes, I know, old people are annoying and think they know everything just because of something that happened to them 45 years ago that they keep telling you about ad nauseum. But sometimes they genuinely know some stuff and know how to survive.

Cutler (Colman Domingo) bows and scrapes before Ma even when she’s not in the room. He knows which side his bread is buttered on, in that there’s no bread, and the butter is I Can’t Believe It’s not Butter since it’s Margarine. But he knows he gets no margarine either without Ma, so he does nothing to aggravate her or irritate her. His common refrain is either “Ma’s not going to like that” or his intro whenever they’re about to play a piece of “a one, a two a you know what to do”. Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) are his loyal old bandmates who just want to do their job, get paid and go.

There’s no loyalty or love lost with Levee. He thinks the old guys are soft, or cowardly. Levee has dreams and aspirations. He wants to write his own songs, he wants his own band someday, and has no more deference towards Ma than he does the two guys running the studio.

He has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago, which of course wasn’t around in his day. It’s colloquially known as The Bean, and it’s pretty big, just like, you know, his sense of grievance and entitlement.

He speaks with a certainty as to all the things that he’s going to achieve. A young person hearing that level of enthusiasm and certainty could be impressed, could even be inspired. An older person, like the three old hands in Ma’s employ, hear the chattering of a young rooster who hasn’t really done anything yet to justify his arrogance.

This being based on a play, and mostly transpiring in one room, well, it’s a wordy-as-fuck set of performances, and people even get special opportunities to deliver monologues, just like in the theatre. Levee gives a long and bloodcurdling speech about how little fear or respect he has for the white man, which is really a revelation of horrific things that happened to his parents in the past, and Ma, who hates it when Levee gets the spotlight, delivers her own speech later on about how she feels about her record masters.

The argument as to whether her behaviour could be construed as diva-ish, or diva-adjacent, can come down to her insistence that she has to have three bottles of Coke in order to perform, or her insistence that a) Levee’s arrangement of one of her songs not be used even if the recording studio jerks try to insist, and b) that her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) has to deliver the intro to her song, despite the fact that he has a pronounced stutter.

None of the stuff she insists on has to do with artistic integrity, necessity or because of some deep-seeded trauma – she just wants it to happen, and forces the world to dance to her tune before she’s even singing because that’s what she wants. In the first opening scene, where Ma and her band are performing to an enthusiastic crowd, Levee tries to steal a bit of the limelight with a trumpet solo, but Ma, seeing the spotlight literally go in his direction, demands it back, cannot countenance someone else being the center of attention.

That energy continues throughout the movie. I really thought it was an inter-generational story about the old guard fearing the rise of the young lions, or a young lion like Levee having to fight his way onto the table in order to get his fair share. Any reasonable viewer might come to the same conclusion, at least for a while. Levee wants a lot, and maybe we can respect that.

He even wants Ma’s girlfriend. You read that right. It might be the 1920s, but when you’re a star, you can do whatever the fuck you want, apparently. I wasn’t that surprised at this, since I’d seen a made for TV movie about Bessie Smith a bunch of years ago starring Queen Latifah where it was strongly implied that Ma Rainey introduced Bessie Smith to the joys of lady loving. But when Levee decides that her batted eyelids and shimmying are really for his benefit, you get the feeling that he wants more than just a similar level of income and professional respect as Ma. He tries to fuck her girl, the shifty bastard!

And, not to reduce her to an object of desire, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) really doesn’t have much to do other than be ordered around by Ma and lusted after by Levee. Let’s just say Levee’s attentions are not entirely unrequited., leading to one of the most out of nowhere sex scenes I’ve ever seen.

All the same, this isn’t a story about desire, and aspiration. It’s a wordy story about how people, specifically African-American people, can be immensely talented and famous but still be horribly exploited, and, in the case of Levee, some people are too damaged to ever get along with decent, hard-working folks.

This story does not have a happy ending for anyone other than, I dunno, the music producers? The final shot of a “white” band recording one of Levee’s songs is such a fucking ironic insult that, I dunno, it kinda sucked the meaning out of what I’d watched.

I kinda felt disgruntled by the end of this, and none of that has anything to do with the performances. The performances, especially the queen Viola Davis, and especially King Chadwick in sadly his last ever role, and the three loyal blues stooges who support Ma in everything, are all great. But I am happy to admit that the story and the ending probably resonated differently with African-American audiences, who were, after all, August Wilson’s focus when he wrote the play, than it does with me, because I am in no way a member of that audience.

I still respected the film more than I enjoyed it, and the enjoyment bled out of the experience well before the end. I am saddened by the fact that this is the last time I will see Chadwick Boseman in a movie, and that this character is the last character I am going to see him play. I am sure the other guys and Viola will stun me in future movies, but this feels pretty minor, sad to say.

6 times T’Challa will always be the king of my heart forever out of 10
“They don't care nothin' about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me the way I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt them.” – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom