Shauna Fox hops down front then doodles back.
When I was in college we studied August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I remember because the title is hard to forget, it’s bold, it grabs your attention. Unfortunately, the play itself is less memorable. Having watched the film, I now want to re-read the play. I think the reason I didn’t appreciate it at the time is because a play is written for the purpose of being performed, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains a number of powerful monologues that were made to be heard and not read.
The film is set in Chicago, 1927, and is mainly static in its setting, in that it takes place in a recording studio; rarely does it move from this interior. The surface story shows jazz singer Ma Rainey (based on a real person) recording new music with her band; but the underlying plot is much darker, and still all too current. While in the studio we see multiple conversations take place, many of which focus on the hardships of being Black in a society dominated by white people. Band member Levee (Chadwick Boseman) gives the most powerful monologue of the film when he talks about how he saw his mother raped by White men when he was just eight years old. In this moment, it is clear to see why the play was made to be visualised – the camera stays tight to Levee’s angry, tear-stained face as he recounts the story, no music accompanies, and no flashbacks are used – by doing this the film almost takes on a stage-like format, allowing all the focus to be on the storyteller. This is why Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is such a powerful movie, because it is about the personal stories, the struggles, it’s about the characters.
I keep using the word powerful – it is the best word to describe a film that is so character driven and allows the dialogue to move the story along. Don’t get me wrong, music, and sound and special effects have their place, and the cinema wouldn’t be the same without them, but sometimes when a film comes along that eschews that in order to allow the story to speak through the amazing script, it is all the better for it.
The film, however, is deceptive, appearing at first to be light in tone, with a focus on jazz music (which is brilliantly performed), the band members having a laugh with each other while practicing, mocking. But this all covers up a struggle – Levee’s anger at what happened to his mother; Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis) strength and determination doesn’t help the fact that she knows she has less power than the two White men running the recording studio, even though she’s the one bringing in the money “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice”; band member Toledo (Glynn Turman) comments on the social standing of Black people “…we’s the leftovers.” There is a sadness and pain that runs through this film that builds to a tragic ending no one could have foreseen.
It is the amazing acting, the intimacy, the attention to story that makes this film a formidable piece of cinema. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was created for performance, and what a performance this film was.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix.