Adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth.
Directed by George Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film is produced by “Fences”Oscar-nominees Denzel Washington and Todd Black. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige and Dusan Brown co-star alongside Grammy winner Branford Marsalis’ score. ✦
The film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is set during the summer of 1927. As the same racial embers which erupted eight years earlier continue to simmer, enter a different kind of explosion — but no less stinging or socially significant. Enter singer/songwriter/ showbiz entrepreneur, the legendary Ma Rainey, a black woman from Columbus, Georgia, who is used to obeying nobody’s rules but her own.
Ma Rainey, aka “The Mother of the Blues,” has come north for a one-day recording session. Included in her entourage is her nephew Sylvester, her newest girlfriend Dussie Mae, and band members Toledo, Slow Drag, Cutler and Levee.
As crafted by playwright August Wilson, Ma Rainey breaks a number of rules, including those of August Wilson himself. She is the only character in Wilson’s magnificent ten play cycle, chronicling the African American existence during the 20th century, who is based on a real person. She is also the only LGBTQ character — Ma was an out lesbian, who, in her song “Prove It on Me,” unabashedly proclaims:
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends Must have been women cause I don’t like men.”
Equally unique about “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which premiered on Broadway in 1984, is that it’s the only play in the cycle which is not set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the famed Black neighborhood where Wilson spent his formative years.
But the one quality the piece shares with the rest of Wilson’s work is its stunning language; language which is as exalted as it is visceral and raw.
As the characters in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” sermonize, philosophize, talk shit, confront and condemn, their cascading words become a symphonic composition which celebrates the pain, joy and wonder of being black, human and alive.
As much as Ma Rainey the historical figure was a trailblazer, by 1927, the world was starting to leave her behind. Bessie Smith, Ma’s protege and alleged former lover, had eclipsed her in record sales and popularity; and each week The Duke Ellington Orchestra could be heard on the radio, live from the Cotton Club — the modernity of Ellington’s harmonics, the polar opposite of Ma Rainey and her jug band blues.
In the film, Levee, Ma’s coronet player, who has his own musical sound and vision of the future, sees his time in Chicago as a chance to break free of the strictures which have kept black performers/artists from having the creative careers they deserve. Will Levee have a future full of promise and possibility or will the demons of his past and ours as a country keep him and us from moving forward, unencumbered and free?