Levee’s fancy footwear in ‘Ma Rainey’ is like a loaded gun with the safety off
The movie may have been titled “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but the George C. Wolfe-directed adaptation of August Wilson’s play, which has been streaming on Netflix since December, could just as easily be titled “Cornetist Levee’s Yellow Shoes.” That’s because, from the minute the fateful footwear appears on screen — less than seven minutes in when Levee dashes across the street in 1927 Chicago to get a closer look at them in a store window and almost gets creamed by a car in the process — they’re lovely to look at and impossible to ignore.
Viola Davis is the legendary blues singer opposite Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman in this strong Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play.
And, by the time we take our leave of Levee (spoiler alert), they’ve become one of the most life-changing pairs of cinematic kicks this side of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
When Levee (played by Chadwick Boseman in his final film role) first bounds into the pressure cooker of the band’s rehearsal room with the newly purchased yellow wingtips in hand, it feels as if he’s waving a loaded pistol — with the safety off — erratically around his fellow musicians. Things don’t get any less tense from there. It turns out his shoe-shopping detour has made him late, which irritates his bandmates. It also turns out that $4 of the $11 Levee paid for the shoes (around $165 in 2021 dollars) had come straight out of the trombone player’s pocket — by way of a craps game — which irritates them even more. In no time at all, the shoes become far more than just a pair of shoes.
They’ve become a wedge between the men, a potent symbol of upward mobility for an ambitious horn player with big dreams and a lit fuse that burns and sputters toward a powder keg of pride that, when it finally explodes, ruins several lives and alters the course of musical history along the way.
Not bad for a pair of shoes whose exact origins — off-screen at least — are lost to the ether. Costume designer Ann Roth, who spoke to The Times from her home in Pennsylvania late last month, only remembers that the buttery yellow wingtip-style brogues, with perforated designs framing the toe box, arcing across the vamp and curlicuing across the toecap, came from a New York shoe store in Manhattan. “[I found them] in a store on Orchard Street — or maybe just off Orchard Street,” Roth said, noting that all the prep work for the film was done in New York — and quickly — before shooting began in Pittsburgh on July 8, 2019. “These were not new shoes,” she added, “but older shoes they had in stock.”
Roth was also not 100% sure who actually made the focus-pulling footwear (“Do you know how many movies I’ve worked on since then?” she said when asked about their provenance), but she thought they might be Stacy Adams. “In the past I’ve used Stacy Adams, and I always went to Harlem to buy them,” said the 89-year-old costume designer, whose CV to date includes more than a hundred theater productions, about as many films, a Tony (for “Nance”) and an Oscar (for “The English Patient”). “They’re divine shoes.” A week later, through a Netflix rep, Roth confirmed that the brand behind the brogues she’d bought was To Boot New York. (According to William C. Daw, curator of the Curtis Theatre Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, home to the August Wilson Archive, Levee’s dialogue in the original play identifies them as Florsheim shoes.)
Roth was absolutely sure about two things, though: First, that Levee’s shoes should be yellow. “These are shoes that belong on an uptown guy — a snappy dresser,” she said.
“They’re spiffy, going-out shoes, the kind that if you walked into a hotel [with them on] you’d stop traffic, and everybody would stare at how beautiful you were,” Roth said, adding that in the late-1920s era in which the film is set, most men had two pairs of shoes — a brown pair (for work) and a black pair (for church). “But yellow shoes,” she added, “those would be extraordinary. You had to be a high-stepper to have them or to wear them or to pay for them.”
Roth was equally insistent that they be one solid color instead of two-tone wingtips with contrasting color leather at the toe, heel and lacing panel (as they have been in some stage productions), explaining that two-tone shoes wouldn’t be as powerful a visual. “When you look at somebody, your eyes go to the floor, [and] you want to see a strong color,” she said. “If it’s broken up, there’s less of a visual [impact].”
Although it’s common practice in movie production to have multiples of a given costume piece on hand — especially when it’s something that gets as much screen time and focus as Levee’s footwear — Roth said she bought just a single pair, which required that they be treated with care throughout the 40-day film shoot. “I wanted them to look spanking new, so we put a lot of Vaseline on them,” she said, referring to the old-school shoe-care hack to remove scuff marks and add shine.
This is delicious behind-the-scenes detail, especially given how an inadvertent scuff of the musician’s beloved brogues by a bandmate’s “raggedy-ass clodhoppers” in the final minutes of the film is the match-strike that blows the powder keg of Levee’s pride and brings the movie to a close. That a single fingerful of Vaseline — which was patented in 1872 and probably would have been widely available in 1927 Chicago — might have made all the difference in that pressure cooker of a rehearsal room feels almost heartbreaking.
Of course, that kind of practical fix would have deprived us of not only Wilson’s 1982 play but also the Ruben Santiago-Hudson-adapted screenplay. That, in turn, would have deprived us of Boseman’s final film performance, as indelible and seared into our brainstems as those lovely-to-look-at — and impossible to ignore — buttery yellow wingtips.
Which would have been infinitely more heartbreaking.
Chadwick Boseman’s final performance concludes on a heartbreaking note meant to drive home the play’s point about the value, and ownership, of Black art.
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