Period pieces are often lauded for the “relevance” of their content and themes, and when these films concern themselves with racial relations and identity, such commendations are but a sad testament to America’s short-term memory of its own history. In spite of this somewhat oblivious irony, it no doubt holds true for the wonderfully produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Spoilers below:
Based on a play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s captures a day in the life of a no-nonsense blues singer (“Ma,” amazingly avatared by Viola Davis) as she works to record her hit song “Black Bottom” at the studio along with her accompaniment band. Among the players is “Levee,” portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman, who only compounds the loss that was his death by delivering some of the most stunning accent work ever put to film. Both terribly proud and embittered towards the white man, Ma and Levee are set to clash heads as the latter has his sights set on a solo career. It is their struggle for success in a world that both celebrates and resents them that forms the emotional core of this ultimately tragedian piece.
Ma Rainey’s, in spite of some minor nitpicks in editing and camerawork, is nothing short of a fantastic motion picture. The film is like a modern-day Peter and the Wolf, with evocative musicality threaded throughout not just the film’s song-and-dance numbers, but also in its very performances and dialogue. The cadence, pitch, and pace of delivery of all the characters’ lines practically transcends language, and I have no doubt that if a hypothetically blind viewer who had absolutely no conception of English were to experience the film, they would still come away with a decent understanding of its progression and end. That is how brilliantly, clearly emotive this film is, and it is its crowning achievement.
The film must also be commended for its themes, which while they are certainly open to disagreement, it is the fact that they can push for such contentious and spirited discussion which shows that they are of the highest merit. For “Black Bottom” is not just a song – it defines a period in time and a moment in one’s character.
The film opens on a shot of a thicket. We hear the sounds of dogs barking, and hurried human breaths fleeing with some anxiety. It is all highly suggestive, and a reminder of the institutional nadir that Black Americans then and now work tirelessly to escape from- a hole from whose bottom they have climbed away, but whose walls seem to continue into the sky. At night, the film’s Black characters let loose when Ma takes to the stage to do a set, but by day they work as the burdened, nameless proletariat of a nation that simultaneously despises them and depends on their service. This, dear reader, is a Black Bottom. Ma and Levee are acutely aware of this raw deal, and openly confess to others their distrust and resentment towards their fellow, white, human beings.
It is an honest, unforgiving depiction of America’s history and peoples. This difficult subject matter will no doubt be a hard pill to swallow for some audiences, doubly so to those sensitive to the fact that this great indignation and the victimhood of our characters is never truly resolved or overcome, at least not in a typical fashion. Indeed, it might be fair to say that adapting Ma Rainey’s to screen from stage in as racially tense times as these is in the end a toxic gesture. The film does not explicitly reconcile Ma and Levee’s anger, and in fact (in a vaguely anti-semitic plot point) when Ma does put trust into her white, Jewish, studio heads, it ultimately proves to be her undoing. Do not befriend the white man, he will betray you – that would at first seem to be the film’s one message to share.
But remember, this is a tragedy. The motivations of our characters will lead to their downfall – they are meant to be simulated, not emulated. It is the fate of Levee, whose contempt for the white man was no doubt the greatest among Ma and the bandmates, which shows that hatred, no matter how deserved it is towards individuals, will only have negative consequences when directed towards entire demographics.