Blue Velvet

December 21, 2020

IN 1929, two years after the setting of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and about seven months after Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” made her last recordings, another stylish Southern blues singer—the “Queen” of the genre—cut a song with her new husband. On “When the Levee Breaks,” Memphis Minnie looses her guitar on Kansas Joe McCoy, who starts to sing:

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s going to breakIf it keeps on rainin’, levee’s going to breakAnd the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted for the screen from August Wilson’s eponymous play by director and dramatist George C. Wolfe, is a story of nearly relentless claustrophobia. The spotlight hangs on Rainey, embodied by a radiant Viola Davis, and her fictionalized sparring partner Levee, whom Chadwick Boseman, in his final role, portrays with genius, frenetic glee. Both are trapped in the recording studio with the rest of Rainey’s band and entourage, tasked with setting down four tracks. We hear the evocative “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and a little of their bawdy “Hear Me Talkin’ To You,” while two go unrecorded: a rendition of her popular “Moonshine Blues” (which Rainey herself often performed live, crouched inside a large cut-out replica of an old Victrola), and her proudly lesbian “Prove It On Me Blues.” Thick with the history that courses through each monologue and sticks, sweaty, to each character’s skin, the film is weighted by the inexorable racism that haunts each narrative twist and buoyed by perambulant dialogue and declarative song. In Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), Amiri Baraka—a leader of the Black Arts Movement and one of Wilson’s greatest influences—attributed this particular Black mode of experiencing history (its pain, its pleasure) to blues itself, which he called “the deepest expression of memory. Experience re/feeling. It is the racial memory.” Pressed by the past, trapped in the present, and losing his chances to perform his own music, Levee—the ambitious and doomed young trumpet player in Rainey’s band—eventually breaks.

But this isn’t really a movie about things happening. Rainey and her band leave the South for a Chicago recording session where, after a series of fits and starts, they do their songs, take their money and, after enduring various new and recollected tragedies (one of them catastrophic), depart. It could have opened in the same moment as Wilson’s play: on a pinched-looking white record engineer named Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvin, Rainey’s limply self-important (also white) manager (Jeremy Shamos), discussing how best to “handle” the singer. Instead, in a rare long shot, we’re in the woods: Two Black boys sprint through the eerie sounds of chirping crickets and barking dogs into a blaze of torchlit fire. The palpable danger associated with these signifiers recedes as the boys immerse themselves in a tent show in the woods that’s crowded with Black people cheering Rainey. Anointed with gold and waving a soft blue ostrich feather, she smolders on stage, bringing down the house with her “Deep Moaning Blues.” Still, that initial danger never truly goes away. We’re thrown from the rural South into bustling working-class Chicago, where Rainey’s band is dressed to the nines on a sweltering day and skirting the looks, and bodies, of white pedestrians. Led by Cutler (Colman Domingo) with Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) in tow, the musicians enter a studio basement. They talk some shit; Levee bursts in with a bright new pair of shoes. While Rainey makes her way to the studio, the band engages in what is both the film’s central activity and an allegory for the delays and deferrals of Black life under white supremacy: They begin to wait. 

In a film that stages its battle with the limits of the past in a series of steamy, low-lit rooms, Wolfe’s production succumbs to the heartrending beauty of excess. Levee grinning beneath his trumpet solo, or pulling his shirt open to show the camera his scar. Toledo, eyes wet, hearing Levee’s coming-of-age horror story. Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) dancing the “black bottom,” singing into dead microphones so no one can hear her but everyone can see, telling Levee she “don’t need nobody wanna get something for nothing and leave me standing in my door.” In these bursts of possibility, the film offers glimpses of what writer Saidiya Hartman has called “the directionless search for a free territory…a beautiful experiment in how-to-live.” But it’s Rainey, glittering and shaking, belting her blues, making everyone dance, who best encapsulates physical, gestural, and sonic abundance. (Davis herself performs “Those Dogs of Mine,” while the rest of the tremendous vocals are supplied by soul singer Maxayn Lewis). As a kind of interstitial figure in the era of the record boom—still playing that “jug band music” that Levee jeers at, hollering off-mic instead of crooning into it and pitching her songs to the Southern tent show circuit instead of the Northern clubs—Rainey’s irrepressible presence is dissonant in the film’s recording studio, persistently in excess of the space that would contain her.

Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, in 1866 (or, according to some researchers, four years earlier in Alabama), Rainey herself was at least ten years older than her “classic blues” contemporaries. Where the filmic Rainey is unwavering and justifiably quick to tell off anyone who crosses her, the historical figure has been described (by her former pianist, arranger, and band leader Thomas Dorsey and her former guitarist Sam Chatmon) as moderate and sweet-tempered. The film does, however, capture her queerness. Three years before Rainey recorded “Prove It On Me Blues” (1928)—where she calls herself “crooked,” wears “a collar and a tie,” and chronicles a night out “with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men”—she was arrested for hosting an orgy with her chorus girls. It may be tempting to think of her “Ma” moniker simply as a product of her advancing age (she would have been in her early forties in 1927), or as a signifier, in the words of Paige McGinley, “of the regional and class background [she shared] with much of her audience.” But, in a dialectal twist, she also appeared in tent shows under the bourgeois sobriquet “Madame Gertrude Rainey,” bedecked in glamorous costumes and accompanied by chorus girls and her professional backing band. If “Ma” alluded to a sort of vaudevillian minstrel trope, it also meant “mama”; in the language of the blues, a lover; a sensual, gorgeous woman, the one who you can’t catch. 

Wolfe’s translation of play to screen allows for more time outdoors, but the camera is otherwise fairly ascetic, mostly trained to characters’ faces, hugging their bodies and miming the studio’s cramped quarters. The intimacy is sustained by Wilson and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s dialogue that’s philosophical and freewheeling (or “nomadically wandering,” like Houston Baker’s blues). If not for the cast’s expert performances and the full-throated acting of Davis and Boseman, the film might otherwise begin to drag through these extended exchanges. (I’m grateful to see these performances now, but it’d be easier to suspend my disbelief at these lengthy monologues on something bigger than my laptop screen.)

First staged in 1982, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the second work to premiere in Wilson’s ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” (and the only one not set in that city). Entrusted by Wilson’s widow Constanza Romero to adapt the series for the screen, producer Denzel Washington played the lead in the first of these productions in 2016 as Troy Maxson in Fences, which also featured Davis as Maxson’s enduring wife Rose. Most (if not all) of the film’s actors have a relationship to the stage and to Wilson, and it’s hard not to read their fluid rapport with the material, and with one another, as key to the film’s success. Davis received her first Tony nomination for playing Vera in a 1996 Broadway production of his Seven Guitars, and Turman, who was nominated for an Emmy for his appearance in ABC’s legal drama “How to Get Away With Murder” (starring Davis), also played Toledo in a 2016 stage version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Potts played Turnbo in Wilson’s Jitney (2017, directed by Santiago-Hudson) and acted alongside Washington in Wolfe’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (2018). Santiago-Hudson has maintained a collaborative relationship for years with Wolfe (who himself charts a long history staging plays about early twentieth-century Black life), and played Caesar in Gem of the Ocean (2004). And during production, Boseman—a devoted reader of Wilson’s work—called the play his favorite of the Cycle. Knowing about these relationships changes something for me about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: as much as it’s about struggle, it’s also about the joy of doing something important together, against the odds. The film is dedicated to Boseman, may he rest in peace.

In addition to these actors’ sensitive and affecting performances, the movie offers some satisfying historical Easter eggs. Rainey really did record “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1927, albeit with a different backing arrangement. The Paramount Record Company was, compared to other recording outfits like Okeh and Victor, kind of busted—the frayed cord in the studio and the dingy basement where band members wait between takes and Coca-Cola runs seems to allude to its smaller, lower-budget operation. And Rainey’s style was famously extravagant. She was known to pair twenty-pound gowns of bright-colored satin with a necklace of jangling gold pieces (as seen in the tent show), and to lighten her dark skin with greasepaint then brighten it with rouge, affecting a golden sheen under stage-light. The film also taps into the ambient awe bordering on discomfort that a then-contemporary listener might have felt toward their record player, unnerved by the machine’s ability to reproduce in sound those who, in presence, are gone.

For all of its beauty, the movie does have its flaws. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers preserved the original script’s use of Ma Rainey’s nephew Sylvester’s (played by Dusan Brown) stutter as a metaphor for the narrative’s abundant fits and starts. Even more so that it relies on the source material’s painful description of Levee’s mother’s rape as the driving force of Levee’s personal struggle; there just isn’t enough attention to the mother, or to the origin and impacts of sexual trauma—in the movie or in the play—to fill the vacuum that this violence produces. What Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does give us is the pain and ecstasy of watching Boseman experience the pain and ecstasy of Levee, and Davis’s Ma Rainey, eyes askance, plumbing the musical, gestural, and emotional depths of the “black bottom,” this filmic world:

— Sophie Abramowitz