Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
The moment cuts through time—social and personal. A group of Black musicians waiting in a basement practice room in 1927, hearing themselves in the voice of a fellow musician on the stairs just outside. He pleads with a white record producer to record his songs—less a string of melodies than the music that he’s heard in his head, perhaps since he first picked up a horn. In his voice, the musicians hear themselves though—the closeness of their sound and the varying degrees of detachment that they feel in the impulse to play for white dollars. This act of memory is the pivot around which George Wolfe’s 2020 film adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom resolves itself.
Ma has come north from Memphis to Chicago for a day in the sound studio. Her band members work to define themselves within her sound’s journey—the blues brought north, perched on the edge of jazz’s emerging energies. The men in the ensemble define themselves in terms of their “roles”—both within the band and the prevailing American race lines. Cutler, the trombonist, is the group’s accommodating leader. Beneath Ma’s lead, Slow Drag’s “jumping” bass and the piano played by Toledo, elder and voice of the ensemble’s memory. Levee, the trumpet player, resists his defined role though. He dreams his own urban sound. Contentions prompt studio delays. Ma shucks Levee’s version of “Black Bottom” for her rooted, more rural own.
Onstage, Wilson’s language is tuned to the thin air that exists between memory and the present. As the characters’ individual narratives unfold, they testify to their own particular senses of movement and stasis within the blues that inhabits a Chicago recording studio. Ghosts are evoked in their verbal sparring (sometimes playful, sometimes not)—not only the ghost of Ma Rainey on stage/film, but the ghosts of the men themselves in prior moments, in often unspoken memories of their own lives.
The language derives its power from Wilson’s capacity for invoking a range of bordered spaces in American memory—Black/white, past/present—as well as the line between the blues and gospel, that narrow boundary between Saturday night and Sunday morning that rests within Black experience in the United States. Wilson’s plays walk as a ghost within those boundaries. As they do, he invites the audience into a renewed map, a city disappearing against all those forces that have made it—whether that urban space is “The Hill” of Pittsburgh or, as in Ma Rainey, a passing blues afternoon in Chicago.
All of Wilson’s voices on stage acknowledge this lost past, ghosts speaking back to the present. According to Hilary Mantel, the ghost in general speaks into and within us: “Within you, there are people you have never been able to mourn because you never knew them, people from the distant past…As products of evolution, we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost” (“Ghost Writing”). Wilson’s language speaks Black experience—the cruelties and violence that seems to replicate itself in each American generation, requiring itself to find touchstones for speaking those measured, disfiguring acts of racist intent.
In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adapted screenplay, Wilson’s voice is sharpened against the hard recognition of the Black body’s worth in this American present. In his introduction to the play, Wilson notes, “Whether this music came from Alabama or Mississippi or other parts of the South doesn’t matter anymore…[These] roots have been strangled by the northern manners and customs of free men of definite and sincere worth” (16). Each character must negotiate his or her own place against the sound’s cold commerce. As she bargains for some slim control of the recording process, Ma herself says, “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice…If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”
This hard insight propels Levee’s own frustrated hope—“writ large” in geographies and sounds that he has traveled. As Levee puts it, “Hell, I eat [bad luck] everyday for breakfast!” The ensemble jokes Levee down as he tries to ingratiate himself to the record producer and hands over his newly written charts. Laying his past (and wounds) bare, Levee bristles back, “I can smile and say yessir to whoever I please. I got time coming to me. You all just leave Levee alone about the white man.” Later, on the stairs, as he implores the record producer to allow him to record the music that he has written, his voice rises and turns on himself. “I don’t want no five dollars…I wants to record them songs.” When the producer refuses that, Levee accepts the offered five dollars. As he does, the blues unwinds its wider memory of tragedy.
The movie’s director, George C. Wolfe, says that he wants Levee to feel that moment of frustration in a space added to the film’s script near its end—a door at the edge of the practice room. Earlier in the film, Levee fingers the doorknob as he narrates his musical destiny. Later, he busts through that door, only to find himself in a walled-in space between buildings. Levee can see the sky, but he has no path there. He is swallowed up by the violence of his past.
Language gets unsparingly sharpened in these moments of transition within the film—those moments where characters are laid bare, where race is performed and negotiated with memory. Cutler listens as Ma tells her own blues. In a monologue added to the film’s script, Toledo laments at the piano, “What’s the colored man gonna do with himself?…But first he’s got to know that he’s a leftover.” To Levee’s disdain, the musicians commiserate in the shared story of racist degradations of a Black minister in Georgia. Then, as Levee pushes his futile negotiations with the producer in the film’s closing scene, the other band members listen below on the other side of the door. Memory is distant but palpable in their eyes. Levee bargains and they stare down into their respective pasts, hearing their own deals forced by and with white capital.
Here, the fact that Levee is played by the late Chadwick Boseman effects another dimension within the film. Boseman’s posthumous words resound in the past year’s close: “Come on, what you scared of? Turn your back on me! Come on! Coward, motherfucker!” Levee’s desperation consumes him. His song is ultimately covered—a white voice sung over swing and a plucked banjo. Boseman’s performance shimmers in Ma Rainey—last words spoken in a dead year.