From producer Denzel Washington, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows us how complicated being young and ambitious can be.
When people talk about literary canonical works, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, August Wilson’s stories are right up there. His series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, reflect the experience and stories of African American life in the 20th Century.
In 2017, one of these plays, Fences, was brought to our screens in a big way. The Oscar-nominated film starred acting heavyweights Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. This year Washington and Davis joined the late Chadwick Boseman to bring us Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, this time with Washington in the producer’s seat.
Set in Chicago during the Great Migration of the 1920s when African Americans migrated from the south to the north of the country for labourer work, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a story all about the hustle. It follows the jaded experience of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) and the young ambition horn player in her band, Levee (played by Boseman).
We first meet Ma Rainey, also known as the ‘Mother of Blues’ doing what she clearly does best – performing on stage in front of a cheering crowd. During the opening performance, we also see Levee on stage – full of life and passionate about the music he’s playing. But, what lies beneath the surface is a different story. As the film goes we learn about a friction that occurs off-stage between Ma and Levee and also between Levee and fellow band members, Cutler (played by Euphoria and If Beale Street Could Talk actor Colman Domingo and Toledo (played by Fargo actor, Glynn Turman).
After the performance, the band head to the recording studio to lay down one of Ma’s songs: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’. Full of jest and excitement, Levee tells the band his ambitions of having his own band and writing his own songs. They think is completely ridiculous and laugh at the thought. Nevertheless, he manages to convince Ma’s white manager, Irvin, to go with his musical arrangement for the song, only for to Ma to immediately change it back to her original composition in front of everyone, giving us an insight into their already conflicting relationship.
Typical of a Wilson play, from here on out and the conversation between the band members back in the rehearsal room are cleverly interspersed with the band’s individual experiences as Black men in America. There’s an occasion when Irvin enters rehearsal room and Levee, both eagerly and politely, asks about recording his own music. But, his eagerness is made fun of by the band for pandering to the ‘white man’. “The man came in here calling you a boy, telling you to get up off your ass and rehearse and you ain’t had nothing to say except ‘yes sir’” says Cutler. Irritated, Levee defends himself saying he knows how to handle ‘white folks’.
Levee sheds tears as he recalls how he felt powerless as an eight-year-old boy who witnessed his mother get taken advantage of by a white man unexpectedly in their home. Boseman powerfully and emotively delivers this description of what was a devastating and quintessential experience among African Americans at this time. It speaks to a deep lack of control felt by many in the Black community throughout the Great migration and beyond. It’s heartbreaking to watch; even more so knowing that the racism and prejudice experienced by these characters is still echoed in the present reality.
The second half of the film zooms in on Levee’s foil, Ma. The band joins her to record in the main studio, but the session is halted before it even begins. Ma’s one request? A cold drink of Coca Cola. She causes a fuss and says she won’t record unless she has one, even though it’s difficult to understand why she’s being so provocative.
Eventually, she vocalises her true feelings to Cutler. “They don’t care nothing about me, they just want my voice. And I learnt that. They’re going to treat me how I want to be treated,” she says. We see just how much she’s been jaded enough times to know how to work in the music industry. Wilson’s plays often force you to question how you feel about characters when they’re first introduced to you – and this was definitely the case for me here. A sense of overwhelming sadness came over me. Just like Levee is, Ma is misunderstood. She’s not reckless but rather she’s calculated and practical.
Back in the rehearsal space, the conversation moves on to a discussion about what’s worse: life or death? It’s incredibly moving knowing what we know now. Boseman had been dealing with colon cancer but kept it secret from those on set. Having since passed, what he says while performing as Levee in this scene is only the more poignant. “Now death, death’s got some style,” he says. “Death will kick your ass and make you wish you’d never been born. That’s how bad death is. Life ain’t nothing.”
The band move back into the recording studio and successfully record the song they’d spent so long working on. But straight after, Levee’s hopes of becoming the star he’s always wanted to be are stopped. Ma’s manager, Irvin, doesn’t think his music is what people want to hear. His dreams shattered and anger growing, Levee takes out a knife he has on him and in the heat of the moment, he tragically kills Toledo.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not a story where experience trumps young ambition, but one that demonstrates the dangers of how unpredictable young ambition can be and how valuable life is. The passion and vigour that Levee’s has, is ultimately, his downfall. Ma Rainey however, having stood her ground is an example of the success Levee could have been.