Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores the politics behind the ‘Mother of the Blues’

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman in his final role are outstanding as black artists fighting to make their voices and music heard in 1920s America, though even here their treatment is lopsided.

Viola Davis as Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, ‘Mother of the Blues’

▶︎ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in cinemas from 4 December 2020 and on Netflix from 18 December.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was first written as a play by the great storyteller of Black America, August Wilson, in 1984. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, it was one of ten plays that captured the African-American experience during the 20th century. Now, Wilson’s story of race, power, sexuality and cultural appropriation in 1920s America appears on Netflix as a feature film.

Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, it stars Viola Davis as the titular ‘Mother of the Blues’, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman – appearing in his last screen role – as her ambitious and eager horn-player Levee. The title refers to Rainey’s song of the same name – the ‘black bottom’ being a dance that was developed by African-American musicians in the 1920s.

Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays, and his story of Ma Rainey in particular, explored the long history of exploitation and appropriation of African-American culture, which has been both fetishised and denigrated, loved and loathed. This subject is explored throughout the film which, like the stage play, is a fictionalised account of the tensions that arise when Ma and her band travel to Chicago in 1927 to record a number of her songs.

Chadwick Boseman as Levee (foreground) with Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Colman Domingo as Cutler

Like Wilson’s play, the film confines most of the narrative to the recording studio, where Ma’s band, agent and producer wait anxiously for her to arrive. In the rehearsal room the jazz band – made up of the older gentleman Cutler, Slow Drag, Toledo and the young charmer Levee – philosophise, rehearse and tease Ma’s nephew Sylvester.

There is a clear fissure between the older and younger generation: where Levee sees an opportunity to become an established musician by trying to sell his songs to the white producer Sturdyvant, the older musicians see a waste of time. Toledo asserts that “the coloured man is leftovers”, while Levee assures him that he knows how to “spook the white man”. Levee’s dreams start to fade when Ma arrives, and hostility arises; he wants to inflect Ma’s music with his own flair, a prospect she will not entertain.

Davis – covered in sweat, and wearing gold teeth – portrays Rainey as unapologetic, fierce and confident, swaggering about the studio as though she owns it. Despite her sense that Sturdyvant and her agent Irvin only value her vocal talent and the profit they can make from it – “All they want is my voice,” she says – Ma resolves to make the record her way.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

The bubbling frustration of the music, and the political issues at play, are at times compounded by the claustrophobic studio setting, in which both the audience and characters are trapped. At points this confinement helps Wolfe’s direction to create a sense of energy; the camera follows the shuffling and spinning of Boseman’s trumpeter as he dances around the rehearsal space, his seduction of Ma’s young lover Dussie Mae, and the quarrels between Ma and her producers.

This dynamism reaches a peak when Ma finally arrives and begins to perform – the camera closes in on Davis’s ‘Black Bottom’ dance, lingering on her shaking hips and cat-like grin as she croons for an invisible crowd. At other times, though, the direction feels static and stunted – where on stage the single location works to amplify the performances, here the drama feels limited in scope. The characters appear in a vacuum, in which backstories, rather than being shown to the audience through action, are delivered as austere monologues that falter on screen.

This is particularly frustrating given the richness of the politics and the emotional journeys of the characters in Wilson’s masterpiece; the themes of exploitation and historical marginalisation are just as important in the moment we are living through today, when the value of Black lives must still be asserted.

Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Colman Domingo as Cutler

That is not to say the film has no heart – though its sympathies are primarily concentrated on Levee, whose transition from jovial charm to raw ambition, rage, vulnerability and tragedy is beautifully rendered by Boseman, in physicality and expression. Meanwhile, Ma’s battle to hold on to her integrity, prosper and express her sexuality, which should carry dramatic weight, fails to engage.

It is a problem with Wilson’s play that it sometimes feels more interested in male stories than in Ma Rainey herself, but the camera magnifies the difficulties: Boseman’s speeches seem to get more extreme close-up, more stillness than Davis’s, as though it’s in his striving for success that significance resides.

Both Ma and Levee feel constrained by their race, within the studio and in the wider American culture outside; yet where Levee is portrayed as misunderstood, Ma in some ways becomes emblematic of the problematic stereotype of the Black ‘superwoman’, and Viola Davis faces the problem of humanising her.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

Davis’s presence is formidable; in spite of heavy make-up that might obscure another actor’s performance, she embodies the singer completely. She doesn’t shy away from Rainey’s sexuality, showing tenderness and passion with Dussie Mae. However, the absence of Ma for much of the drama inhibits the audience’s investment in her struggle – in the stage play, anticipation of her arrival cranks up the tension, but that feeling is lost in the film. And Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay sidelines Dussie (Taylour Paige), turning her into a cipher of desire for both Ma and Levee.

The most striking scenes in this film are when it deals with what the writer and musician Greg Tate refers to as “everything but the burden”: the way that – as both Ma and Levee come to realise – the ‘white man’ can profit from Black culture, but without the burden of its history, and the consequences of this appropriation for African-American culture. One such moment near the end affecting Levee is genuinely heartbreaking.

This film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes a plea to the audience: to honour and remember the legacies of African-American culture, and never to forget the ‘Mother of the Blues’. Despite this effort, it does not reach the emotional heights of Wilson’s stage play, and the importance placed on Levee’s narrative overshadows Ma and scuppers the film’s apparent attempt to memorialise Ma Rainey as an icon of American music.