A Commanding ‘Ma Rainey’

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a reasonably faithful and inspired adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, is a full-throated interpretation of one of the writer’s strongest female characters.

The film, now playing on Netflix and in limited theatrical release, is no small event for Ma Rainey fans.

For those not familiar with Rainey or blues music, her reputation has been somewhat eclipsed by legendary singer Bessie Smith.

Smith (1894-1937) was called the “Empress of the Blues,” because Gertrude Melissa Nix Rainey (1886-1939), aka “Ma Rainey” or, to put on airs, “Madame,” had already secured billing as “Mother of the Blues” and “Queen of the Blues.”

But Bessie got the edge over Ma in terms of discography. Both first stepped into the studio in 1923, a breakthrough year for Black blues and jazz recordings, called “race records.”  Ultimately, she recorded more than 190 songs compared to Ma’s tally of about 100.

Smith was also considered the more compelling blues singer, with countless books dedicated to her art and career. Aside from Wilson’s play, little has been written about Rainey.

We can therefore thank Netflix, co-producer Denzel Washington, and two compelling performances by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman for once again shining the spotlight on this seminal figure.

Davis delivers a commanding acting and singing performance as Ma. Boseman is also wonderful as Ma’s arch nemesis, the ambitious, but psychologically scarred trumpet player, Levee Green.  

The film, which starts with a brief glimpse of racial segregation in Chicago, segues into a day in the life of Ma Rainey.

The focus is a per-diem recording of four tunes, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma is to receive a onetime payout of $200, while the late middle-aged trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), the pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and the bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) happily accept $25 each. In Levee’s parlance, the pay scale represents the tired old “jug band” way.

Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Netflix
(Above: Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Source: YouTube video)

The white recording studio owner, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), helps create friction between Ma and Levee. He encourages Levee to modernize the intro and feel of Ma’s well-worn arrangement of “Black Bottom.” Ma will have none of it, criticizing Levee’s melodic improvisations (“You play 10 notes for everyone you supposed to play.”)

To make matters worse, Levee makes advances to Ma’s young female lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).                                                                              

Gone from Wilson’s play are entire monologues and band-room banter involving the musicians and Ma’s entourage, which includes Ma’s severely stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown). This sometimes leads to awkward dramatic transitions.

Wilson derived both character and major plot elements from the 1927 recording of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Black Bottom was a period dance, as well as a lusty double entendre.

That record opens with an interaction, taken possibly from one of Ma’s country tent shows:

“Alright, boys. You done seen the rest,

Now I’m gonna show you the best.

Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”

In an apparent act of sabotage, Ma hires her nephew – again for the going rate of $25 – to record the intro. Truth is, Ma has no intention of using Levee’s new arrangement, although Sylvester’s stutter requires multiple takes, further irritating Levee.

Let there be no doubt: For a glorious moment, Ma runs the show. Her white agent, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant agree to her nephew’s pay and Ma’s creative control. Ma even shuts the session down when Irvin fails to provide her customary three bottles of Coca-Cola.

But Ma knows her reign is fleeting. She says in an aside to her trombonist: “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”

(Top image source: YouTube video)

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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