Some four decades before “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was turned into a film on Netflix featuring spectacular performances by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role and Viola Davis in her next Oscar-nominated one, a young man named Ruben Santiago, who had recently arrived in New York City, went to see playwright August Wilson’s first play on Broadway. It was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a drama that conjures up a single day-long recording session in Chicago in 1927 by the celebrated Mother of the Blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939)
“I was smitten, captured, put in a spell. Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did,” said the theater artist and screenwriter who now goes by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
He said that to me seven years ago, the night after he directed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as part of an ambitious project he was overseeing to record for radio broadcast in a single month all ten of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays – plays Wilson wrote set in each decade of the 20th century..
After that first encounter with Wilson’s work, Santiago-Hudson has devoted much of his professional life to it, both as a Tony-winning actor and as a Tony-nominated director. August Wilson seems to have that effect on people: Denzel Washington is planing to film all ten plays from the cycle. So it makes sense that Washington is the producer and Santiago-Hudson the screenwriter of the film adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” available on Netflix starting December 18th.
Much attention will be paid to the performances of Boseman and Davis in the film, as it should be; in fact, all the performances are very fine. But theater lovers might especially appreciate how Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe, another committed theater artist, have understood that what makes Wilson’s play work is the language.
It needs be said here that the theater makers turned filmmakers take their liberties. They’ve cut out and cut down more than an hour’s worth of Wilson’s monologues and dialogue. While the play takes place entirely in the recording studio and spends much time with the band members before Ma even shows up, the film more or less starts with Ma, in a sequence that I found thrilling. The film begins with a scene of ominous looking woods, dogs barking, two young Black men rushing through, past a row of torches. We’re in Barnesville, Georgia, and they’re not running away from anyone, which we might first assume, but running towards the tent where Ma Rainey is performing. Inside, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey – dolled up in thick gaudy makeup, decked out in gold around her neck and on her teeth; fleshy and seductive in a padded suit — sings her Deep Moaning Blues (“Daddy, daddy, please come home to me”)
While we still hear her singing on the soundtrack, the screen flashes black and white images of Black people on trucks and train stations, superimposed with newspaper articles and ads about the opportunities up North – a quick reference to the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans out of the rural South to Northern cities like Chicago. The last still photograph suddenly comes to life, and zooms in on a Chicago concert hall, where Ma Rainey is performing the same song, this time in front of a rich red curtain, with a line of chorus girls, and the men of her band dressed in tuxedos. The scene switches to glimpses of factory workers, and then the members of Ma’s band making their way through the streets of Chicago to the recording studio.
It’s what you might call a boffo beginning. But from then on, except for a few brief scenes and an added bitter epilogue, the film wisely settles in for the rest of its 90 minutes close up among the characters in that recording studio. They bicker, they philosophize, they rib one another, they rage, and they tell long, jolting stories. Their words reveal their own individual personalities, but they also provide a vivid portrait of the strains and strands of an entire community.
Ma Rainey is the central figure, and the most obvious conflict is her fight to maintain control over her music and assert her worth with the two white men who are making the record. But much of the tension revolves around Boseman’s character Levee, a trumpet player who is the youngest, most ambitious and most volatile member of the band, strutting and smiling one minute, barking and blaspheming the next. He has his eyes on Ma’s new girlfriend Dussie Mae, portrayed by Taylour Paige (and eventually more than his eyes.) But his conflict with Ma is also because he wants to play Ma’s music with new, sophisticated arrangements that make it more danceable, expressing something close to contempt for what he sees as Ma’s old-fashioned jug band blues — a reflection in microcosm of the cultural and psychological changes wrought by the Great Migration.
Levee also has run-ins with all three of the other band members — a simple dust-up with bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) because he inadvertently stepped on Levee’s brand new gold shoes; a variously playful and adamant back-and-forth with the pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), an intellectual who feels the Black man is too busy focused on having fun, and not focused enough on gaining his rights, so they are no longer treated like “history’s leftovers”; he angrily defies God with the religious Cutler (portrays by Colman Domingo), who is the band’s trombone player and in effect bandleader, Ma’s second in command. The one person with whom he doesn’t argue is the white record company owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), for whom he is writing some of his own songs on the promise that he can record them. When his bandmates mock him for his “Yessirs” he explodes, delivering anugly story of Southern injustice as if in one long breath — as if he’s playing his trumpet. It’s not the only flood of words written by August Wilson almost forty years ago — words like the blues — that might make you gasp.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Screenplay by Rubin Santiago-Hudson based on the play written by August Wilson
Cast: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey) Chadwick Boseman (Levee) Glynn Turman (Toledo) Colman Domingo (Cutler) Michael Potts (Slow Drag) Taylour Paige (Dussie Mae) Dusan Brown (Sylvester) Jonny Coyne (Sturdyvant) Jeremy Shamos (Irvin) Joshua Harto (Policeman)
Produced by Denzel Washington Todd Black, Dany Wolf
Costume design by Ann Roth
Editing by Andrew Mondshein
Music by Branford Marsalis