I am in dire need of a break. 2020 has been a traumatic year in general, but especially for the Black community. This year’s endless march of Black death — whether at the hands of police, as a result of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans, or from the recent spate of state and federal executions — has compounded centuries of pain in the Black community.
So when I sat down to watch Netflix’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I was hoping to be uplifted by the Black excellence I was sure to find in a film helmed by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. I was ready to exhale and escape. But while the anticipated excellence exceeded my high expectations, it didn’t take me long to realize that the uplift I’d hoped for would not be found in this story: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tragedy.
Yes, all of Wilson’s works deal with pain and struggle, but the ones I am familiar with (Jitney, The Piano Lesson, and Fences) come with a fair helping of humor, hope, and redemption that help offset the harder elements. Not so with Ma Rainey; the levity is rare and fleeting. And while the story takes place in 1927, it touches on wounds in the Black experience that are just as fresh as when they were first inflicted decades — and in some cases, centuries — ago. One such wound is the commodification of Black talent.
The central action of the story takes place in a single day at a recording studio in Chicago. Ma Rainey (Davis), a popular and prominent blues singer, comes in with her band to record several tracks that Ma’s white manager and the white producer hope will be money-making hits. But, as Rainey bitterly explains to her bandleader, Cutler (Colman Domingo), “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”
In a recent interview via Zoom, Viola Davis told Sojourners that this reality still plays out for Black artists today. “People love money. Money gives us worth, gives us status, so if anyone has any kind of element in them that can make the status quo money, then that is what they’re gonna focus on,” Davis said.
Some may find it surprising that I was unfazed to hear these words, even coming from Davis, an award-winning actor known for her work in Fences and How To Get Away With Murder. I was unsurprised because in my view it’s clear how, as Davis told me, this nation’s racial history has laid the groundwork necessary for this dynamic to persist. For centuries white people were taught to “dehumanize Black and brown people,” Davis said, and “even when the Jim Crow signs are gone, the perception and the mentality is still there — that you’re not as smart, you’re not as talented, you’re not as good, you’re not as worthy, you’re not as any of those things because history has dictated it. So we still have to catch up with that.”
As often as she can, Ma Rainey wields the leverage of her voice, knowing that until the tracks are laid and the papers are signed, she can call the shots; nevertheless, it’s clear that having her demands met does little to heal the pain of not being valued for her personhood.
The film, which premieres on Netflix Dec. 18, opens with two Black men running through the woods. I was instantly tense. This scenario paired with the sound of barking dogs could only mean one thing: They were being pursued. I braced myself for the moment when the torch-bearing mob would enter the frame. But the mob never comes; instead, the men suddenly arrive at a line for a Ma Rainey concert. For two-time Tony Award winning director Gregory C. Wolfe, this sequence is all about challenging our assumptions.
“Anytime you see two Black people running in a film, you just know they’re running from the Klan,” Wolfe told Sojourners. “You just know they’re running from something and I wanted to change: No, they’re not running from something. They’re running to something — and that thing they’re running to is Ma Rainey. And they’re running to her because her voice and her language and her song is reflected [in] their lives.”
As a viewer, I was peeved when I realized Wolfe’s trick; I don’t like being unnecessarily scared. But if Wolfe’s goal was to startle the audience into “watching it anew,” he succeeded. You think you know what the scene is about, but as Wolfe told me: “No you don’t.”
Throughout the film, we see Levee (Boseman), Ma’s trumpet player, attempt to open a locked door in the studio’s rehearsal space, a door Levee claims wasn’t there before. There is something so viscerally painful about watching a Black man try with all his might to open a door. It evokes the struggle of Black men and women to access things that should be readily available to them, like dignity, respect, justice, equality, the right to be heard, the means to pay the bills, the freedom to pursue higher education, and the right to be seen as a full and valuable human being who bears the imago dei. These are doors the Black community is still trying to open — and the reminder added to my fatigue.
Was the acting stellar? Absolutely. The characters felt real. Part of that is a testament to August Wilson’s writing, but only an equally skilled actor can actualize what’s on the page. The cinematography captured exchanges in small spaces that fostered a sense of intimacy with the characters. And of course, with music by jazz legend Branford Marsalis, you can expect great things. I’m not the least bit surprised by the Oscar buzz around the film. This is a brilliant, important film.
It is also a film that was difficult to swallow at the tail end of a dark year. If you choose to watch, just be sure your heart is ready.