Audrey Kupferberg: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Mar 19, 2021

Audrey Kupferberg
Credit WAMC

One of Netflix’s popular films is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an abbreviated version of August Wilson’s 1982 play.  It stars Viola Davis as famous early 20th Century African-American blues singer Ma Rainey, and the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green, a young and ambitious member of her band.  Denzel Washington produced.  This is Boseman’s final role, and even though he was quietly going through cancer treatment during the production, he is an absolute powerhouse. The year of the action is 1927.  The circumstance is a recording session by Ma Rainey and her band, all men of color, in a Chicago studio run by white producers.

The real Ma Rainey lived from about 1886 to 1939.  She is known as “the Mother of the Blues.”  Her approach to her hits, such songs as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” “Moonshine Blues,” “Barrelhouse Blues,” “Shave Em Dry,” and “Lawd Send Me a Man” are typical of her style and available today.  She had a moaning tone accompanied by loose body movements, and she sang lyrics that suggested a lifestyle that went way beyond the moralistic restrictions of church goers.  “Black Bottom” was the tune that sparked a late 1920s dance craze among black and white youth after the Charleston became a fad. Even Caucasian dancer Ann Pennington of the Ziegfeld Follies was thrilling Broadway’s audiences with her adaptation of the “Black Bottom.”

The adaptation of Wilson’s play fails to give as much detail about Ma Rainey as I think she deserves.  The viewer meets her as she makes trouble over her car in traffic.  Then we see her making problems for the studio men.  She’s a haughty bitch.  But why?  Is she uncomfortable being among white Northern men?  Has she been chewed up and spit out by men in general?  Is Ma Rainey a racist?  Or is she mischievously enjoying whatever power she has attained through the years?

She is seen cooing with a pretty young black woman.  Is she lesbian or bisexual?  According to history, Ma Rainey, who was married, was best friends with fellow blues singer Bessie Smith, and it was rumored that the two were a romantic couple.  How many viewers would know that before seeing this film?  If film makers are going to have a star of Viola Davis’s stature play a title role, they should consider writing a more complicated character for her to interpret.  She plays the role well, but the role, at least for the movie version, is too thinly conceived. 

Meanwhile, we do get to know Levee Green, Chadwick Boseman’s character, quite well.  Levee is a young go-getter, an energetic trumpet player who also composes trendy songs in hopes that black singers and musicians will record them.  From his brand-new scuff-free shoes to his many interactions with other band members, we really see who Levee is.  Then, further into the screenplay, Levee presents a soliloquy about his family and his early years that brings the viewer to the heart of the character and displays the fullness of Chadwick Boseman’s talent.  After witnessing that performance, I would liked to have seen him play Hamlet, a modern Hamlet.  From that point onward, this is Boseman’s film and it is fitting that the movie is dedicated to him.

Another film in which Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman play together is Get On Up, a biography of legendary rock-and-roller James Brown.  Released in 2014, it is fast-paced and full of emotion and heart.  Again, this is very much Boseman’s film.  It features incredible music and dancing, and poignant acting scenes.  Davis, as the mother of James Brown, and Boseman as Brown himself, share a very subdued scene together towards the end of Get On Up that demonstrates both actors’ talents.

While there probably will be many more examples of Viola Davis’s Oscar-winning abilities, unfortunately we have lost Chadwick Boseman.  He died from colon cancer at the age of 43, three months before the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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