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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

History Brought To Life

If vaudeville didn't exist in the roaring 1920s, it would've been crucial to creating it. The same is true of the blues. There is a ubiquitous necessity in finding comfort from a very specific form of music. There is a similar necessity for a form of music that's almost like a religion, a form of music you live by and put your faith in that covers such a wide section of your essence. Of course, the African Americans who created this immortal beauty of musical culture in times of unspeakable suppression got no credit for it from the money-hungry vultures that sought its profit while never fully understanding or valuing it. The relevance and acknowledgment of that cultural thievery is what I'm talking about here.

Viola Davis’s miraculous new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deals a lot with that struggle for artistic ownership. The film is based on August Wilson's play of the same name. Set over the course of a single afternoon on a humid and sweaty summer day in Chicago in 1927, beloved blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) shows up to Mel Sturdyvant’s (Jonny Coyle) recording studio with her pampered younger girlfriend Dussie Mae (Zola’s breakout star Taylour Paige) and her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow.

Ma’s useless manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) wants Ma to finish recording her record, promising her that it’ll sell like spreading wildfires. Sturdivant wants the recording session to go by quickly. He warns Irvin to get Ma in and out of the studio as fast as possible but Ma has other ideas. She's hired Sylvester as her chauffeur and she insists he open one of her songs so he can get in on some of the money the recordings will make. He can then send some of it home to let his mom know he's doing ok. His stuttering problem proves to be a source of frustration for both Irvin and Sturdyvant as Ma instructs her nervous nephew to take his time and if he messes up, he’ll just do it again until he gets it right.

The actual recording session doesn't begin until later in the film. Ma’s musical ensemble, Cutler (Euphoria’s Colman Domingo), Levee (The beautiful and amazing late Chadwick Boseman), Toledo (Glynn Truman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) show up before Ma and are sent to the basement to rehearse. Levee has written a whole bunch of songs and intends to start his own band. He's very ambitious and wants to be just like Ma. He sees how she holds the white men who oppress her like string puppets. He's very talented but very impatient.

His life's been very traumatic and he wants to reach Ma’s level immediately. His pattern of straying from Ma’s music has been noticed for a while and Cutler tries to warn the younger Levee of the consequences. Unfortunately, Levee like many young people thinks he knows everything and he arrogantly does not take heed and happily rejects any possibility of consequence.

When audiences first meet Levee, his charismatic energy lights up that dusty basement. He's so confident and so charming. Boseman’s portrayal of the sincerity of Levee’s excitement and happiness in that early scene is earth-shatteringly tragic because you know it's short-lived. Boseman’s passing from cancer is bad enough but you can just tell from the first time you see him swaggering in his shiny new shoes and talking about starting his own band that he’ll be facing a major downfall. His final role is of someone whose happiness comes from unfounded dreams and not reality.

He gives a monologue about Levee’s childhood traumas. I could just feel in my gut that Boseman knew when making this film that like the everyday racism that leads to the end of so many black lives, cancer would soon end his life. Racism is its own form of cancer after all. Unchecked and with a sometimes blatant failure to pretend it does not exist, it can spread quickly with devastating consequences. There's a locked door in the basement that's presence seems to be symbolically taunting Levee throughout the film. Towards the end, he finally breaks it open only to find himself in front of a brick wall at the bottom of the building with no way forward. Characters like Levee always reach their bitter crossroads and often find it is too late to find their way, unable to find a clear path forward.

Boseman himself is to be remembered differently. The happiness Levee expresses in early scenes is precisely how audiences (Myself included) should remember Boseman: A happy soul whose work makes others happy too and not only feel happy but feel seen and heard and above all, loved. Davis has her equally fair share of fantastic monologues too, many of which point to how the blues are ways of life for African Americans and the white people in her world just can't understand it the same way.

I've thought a lot about it and I really do acknowledge that the blues have gotten people like Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman and the Viola Davis’s and Chadwick Boseman’s before them through very dark times. Even today, I'm sure the blues run musically through the blood of many even if they don't know it. It bestows a beautiful culture that Davis and Ma Rainey’s ancestors created and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is both an acknowledgment and praise of gratitude for it.

Viola Davis is absolutely to be taken seriously in her performance (As are all her performances) but having watched the film several times now, I find that she's also adorable as Ma Rainey. I mean, who doesn't adore Viola Davis? If you have not, I encourage you to watch the multitudes of her interviews on YouTube. Some of us have seen her performances on stage such as Fences or Seven Guitars, we saw her win an Oscar for Fences and of course, and of course her breakout film role in Doubt.

Now, you'll get to see her in a gold dress with fake gold teeth and a fake gut, confidently walking into a studio, gracing white with her presence on men who don't respect her, and telling them how it's gonna be. She also demands they use her version of the songs and just when you think the smile on my face couldn't get any wider, Ma Rainey insists that she won't start singing until the emasculated white fools standing above bring to her a special thirst quencher her beloved Coca Cola.

I mean, come on. I'm smiling wider than a Three Dots turtleneck being stretched out as I write this because I'm remembering so clearly that I clasped both my hands to my heart when I first saw this scene because I was so enchanted by Davis’s Ma Rainey. One line of hers stayed with me in particular:

“And they're gonna treat me how I deserve to be treated no matter how much it hurts them.”

Yes, Ma Rainey. Yes, Viola Davis. Yes, Chadwick Boseman. Yes, August Wilson.

The basket of deplorables of our current society lives by the racism of the past and they made it into the racism of the present but I stand proudly with the Rainey's, Davis’s, Boseman's and Wilson’s whose work and voices spark change so that one day, the hardships found in any of their lives will only be found in history. It's probably a cliche now to say history brought to life but Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is on Netflix right now and it IS history brought to life. Just a couple of clicks away.

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