The following story contains spoilers from the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now streaming on Netflix.
The final frames of Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s 1982 play, show a dozen or so white men performing in a recording studio. The instrumentalists appear dull and unfeeling; the singer’s delivery is dry. The trumpet solo, meant to be the song’s standout riff, feels particularly hollow, void of charisma. Yet above them the producer nods, pleased with what he hears.
The scene, which is only a minute long, isn’t in the original play. But witnessing this bland rendition of the vibrant song that Levee, Chadwick Boseman’s talented trumpeter, has been practically coerced to give away punctuates the heartbreaking saga of Black artists exploited by white gatekeepers.
“We know that this happens — ‘Hound Dog’ is considered an Elvis Presley song, not a Big Mama Thornton song — so this is a chance to actually see that violation play out, after getting so invested in the journey of an incredibly gifted artist who had such command of that sound,” explains the film’s director, American theater mainstay George C. Wolfe. “It’s a very slippery little slope: When does sharing become cultural appropriation become theft?”
Black art‘s value, and ownership, are among the bounty of ideas discussed in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the play that essentially launched Wilson’s career. It grabbed the attention of Lloyd Richards, the director who became the author’s mentor; swung open the doors of Broadway, where it ran for 10 months; and kicked off the American Century Cycle, Wilson’s collection of 10 plays about the African American experience, each set in a different decade of the 20th century.
All 10 are set to be adapted for the screen — an endeavor sought out by the Wilson estate and the playwright’s widow, Constanza Romero, and entrusted to Denzel Washington, who shepherded the 2016 film “Fences” and produced “Ma Rainey.” “August was one of the greatest writers in American history, and we’re fortunate — and, if I may be so bold — audiences are fortunate that we’re able to bring his work to those who may never experience all his wisdom in a live performance,” Washington says.
Viola Davis is the legendary blues singer opposite Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman in this strong Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play.
Of the cycle, “Ma Rainey” is the only one set outside Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Its 1920s Chicago sets the story amid the Great Migration and the socioeconomic opportunities that Northern cities, located beyond the purview of Jim Crow laws, promised Black Americans from the rural South.
The narrative finds the Mississippi-born Levee hired as a session musician for blues singer Ma Rainey’s latest record, though he longs to play his own tunes with his own band. And Boseman, in his final screen performance, delivers a performance so heroic, so magnetic, that the viewer never doubts for a second that Levee can make his dream come true.
Levee’s hope in his own future, and in Sturdyvant, the white producer who promises to help get him there, is not blind faith: In a six-minute speech at one point in the film, he interrupts a series of lighthearted jabs and grows serious, relating the story of his mother’s rape at the hands of a group of white men when Levee was just 8 years old, and his father’s subsequent quest for vengeance.
Levee is “starting the story from a place of defiance, and then moving to a place of extraordinary intimacy and unbelievable frailty, compared to the laughter and buoyancy that was just in that room,” says Wolfe. “It is a monster of a monologue. My main job was creating a space that would be so safe as to allow Chad to go to his most vulnerable, unguarded place that he possibly could, so there would be nothing to stand between him and the depth of his own emotional skills.”
“August Wilson is a muscular writer who writes mellifluous, beautiful arias for actors,” says actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted Wilson’s script for the screen. “And also, when Black men are just hanging out and talking s—, it is an art form, with how clever and quick we are. August’s plays give an arena for that, with the energy and poetry of that banter.”
After many attempts to record Ma Rainey’s song (and then to get properly paid for it), Levee follows up with Sturdyvant on songs the producer has commissioned from him — and confronts a familiar slew of excuses: “I just don’t think the people will buy them.” “They’re not the type of songs we’re looking for.” “I don’t think they’d sell like Ma’s records.” Sturdyvant says this all too calmly for comfort, as if he’s done this back-and-forth with other songwriters many times before, and then insults Levee with a lowball offer.
Viola Davis stars as blues legend Ma Rainey opposite Chadwick Boseman in the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s celebrated play.
It’s this enraging encounter that sets off Levee’s violent rage — over a seemingly trivial incident — in the very next scene. Toledo (Glynn Turman), a piano player who at one point in the story reflects on the nature of the African American collective memory, accidentally steps on the pricey pair of shoes Levee purchased that morning, still convinced that Sturdyvant was poised to help him hit it big. Levee lashes out, drawing a knife and stabbing Toledo, killing him.
It returns the viewer to the central questions of value and ownership, this time with fatal consequences. “‘Ma Rainey’ isn’t about ‘This is what you took from us,’” Wilson told The Times in 1987, but, ‘This is so valuable what you’ve taken from us,’ and discovering that value.”
“The tragedy ends up falling on the character who is the most connected to our African culture,” says TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Tim Bond, who has directed two stagings of “Ma Rainey.”
As Wilson himself famously said, “In a world dominated by white culture, the Black must be strong enough not only to survive but to reestablish his own identity and heritage which flows unbroken from an African fountainhead.” In other words, says Bond, “We have to talk about what the worth of a Black person is in this country. And we cannot assimilate ourselves to the point where our work, our livelihood, our art and our culture is co-opted by white people.”
The film’s conclusion, with that lifeless version of Levee’s exuberant song, exploitatively purchased and recorded by an all-white band in Levee‘s absence, makes that co-optation palpable. “You have people performing a catchy tune, but they have no ownership of the language or the world that it came from,” says Wolfe, who had to remind the musicians repeatedly to stop themselves from performing fully or bopping along in order to get the scene’s tone right.
“That song is an expression of Levee’s ego and cocksmanship, and his youthful joy of music,” says Wolfe. “It would have had so much personality if he had sung it. But it’s just not their song, and they shouldn’t be recording it.”
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