Like almost every other entertainment junkie during this pandemic lock-down, film streaming services have been a life-saver. It’s particularly beneficial for an addicted theater-goer as several stage productions have been made into films.
The streaming films are especially welcome because the platforms have found a couple of gems that weren’t monster hits on stage. Better yet, two films of plays, currently on view, have strong social content.
Indeed, this February, a great way to participate in Black History Month is to watch both “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami.” They take a look at the African-American fight for civil dignity from a viewpoint of black celebrity. Essentially, the core of each work is how to use a public platform for both individual and communal good.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an early work by August Wilson, which in 1964 brought the writer into prominence. His greatest achievement was “Fences,” but Wilson wrote many other good plays including “Piano Lessons,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Two Trains Running.” Netflix has promised to film them and other of Wilson’s plays over the next decade.
One hopes they are all created with the skill and talent you find in “Ma Rainey,” which features two great performances.
One is by the recognized great Viola Davis in the title role. The other is by the late-Chadwick Boseman, a young actor best known for “Black Panther,” who was destined for greatness. “Ma Rainey …” was his last film before his death.
The work takes place in a recording studio in Chicago. The year is 1927 and very few black singers had recording contracts. Based on a real-life Blues legend, Ma Rainey knew she sold records and that gave her power over her white producers, who needed her for access to the black community.
Because of her popularity she was able to be a controlling presence who got what she demanded. Her ultimate goal was to use her talent to make herself independent from white exploitation.
The drama takes place as a young, ambitious trumpeter clashes with the old-time musicians of Ma’s band. He wants to alter the sound of the band to make the Blues danceable and more appealing to a white market.
The conversations between him and the older musicians tell the sad plight of subservient black individuals at the turn of the 20th century.
Eventually tensions are caused by the young man who dares to believe that altering black traditions to appeal to whites will give him status and wealth. The tensions among the band members accelerate in a tragic manner.
“One Night in Miami,” which is streaming on Prime Video, expands on the issue of being a celebrity and a person of color.
In “Ma Rainey” the question is how you gain personal independence and power. In “One Night in Miami” the question is, as a black person, once you gain the power that comes with fame, what do you do with it?
In Kemp Powers’ 2013 play, four well-known black men, each at the top of his field, meet and have intense discussions on how their celebrity power can help lift other African-Americans. The situation is no longer having to lift an individual black person. Rather, once you have fame and power, how to do the most good for the entire black population.
The men are the Black Muslim leader, Malcom X, football star Jim Brown, pop singer and record producer Sam Cooke, and the dynamic boxer known at the time as Cassius Clay.
“One Night in Miami” is a powerful work that takes place the night of February 24, 1964. It’s the night Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston to become the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. After the fight, the four friends spend the evening together discussing their careers and most importantly, their roles and responsibilities to the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s based on truth as the four men did hang out together that night, but the conversations are imagined. There is no record of what they discussed.
What is known is the men had a common goal, the lifting of the image of African-Americans. However, each had different views on how to accomplish it. A couple felt as did Ma Rainey, that being a successful role model was enough. Others, especially Malcolm X preferred black unity and economic independence.
As in “Ma Rainey…” the debates are as revealing as they are tension-filled. But, in “One Night in Miami” there is no tragic ending. That came later.
Within a year, MalcolmX was assassinated and Sam Cooke was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances. Jim Brown retired from football to start a film career. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and in 1967 was stripped of his title for political reasons.
Both works are excellent. But watch them as a pair and you understand the frustrations of the African-American battle for economic freedom. It’s revealing, thoughtful and timely. But it is also a sad exercise.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is available on Netflix. “One Night in Miami” is available on Prime Video. Both are pay platforms.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.