August Wilson’s Black Artists Demand Fair Play
by Barry David Horwitz
Surrounded by men who look down on her, Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey is sharp-edged and bossy. She knows that the white producers just want to profit from her voice. But she also knows that the Blues “make life possible.” Behind her heavy make-up and sweat, lie generations of tears.
In his 1984 play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson turns our eyes to a sparkling, vivid 1920s snapshot of the “Mother of the Blues.” Director George C. Wolfe’s recording studio in Chicago reminds us that violent segregation and degradation ruled art and life not so long ago.
Screenwriter Reuben Santiago-Hudson has adapted Wilson’s play for Netflix, making a razor-sharp plea for justice. Ma herself says: “Ma listen to her heart. Ma listen to the voice inside her. That’s what count with Ma.” Ma stands for us, here, and now.
Davis plays Ma Rainey as smarter and more strategic than her demanding white recording bosses. As we all know, slaves are always smarter than their masters—because their lives are at risk. Ma came up the hard way and knows that “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”
So long as she holds onto her songs, the white boss had better fetch her that ice-cold Coke! Her message is loud and clear—but the music producer doesn’t get it—he’s used to singers who take orders.
But in a rundown rehearsal room, Ma’s four superb, back-up musicians are quarreling.
The ambitious trumpeter Levee (incomparable Chadwick Boseman) wants to update Ma’s old-time music. Impatient Levee wants to adapt the Blues for white tastes. When Levee tells the story of his mother’s rape by a gang of white men, time stands still. We begin to comprehend his desire for instant success. We understand his anger and urgency.
Levee tries to steal Ma’s spotlight: “I know how to play real music, not none of this old jugg band shit.” His anger explodes, thrilling us as he teeters angrily on the edge—there’s “no exit” for an eager young Black musician in 1927. Boseman plays Levee like a trumpet solo–enchanting, tinged with tragedy.
Ma’s pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) tells a terrible tale about a preacher beaten up by good old Georgia boys. Toledo’s stories also remind us that Black wisdom is the fruit of mistreatment. His grievances, long buried, give him insight into the Black Man as “Leftovers” from the white man’s table.
As trombonist Cutler, Colman Domingo embodies Black wisdom and experience. Cutler is content to float in Ma’s wake, to give her strength and good music. His faith and his story about selling your soul to the devil both speak directly to sadistic bullying of Black people. Bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) furnishes the melancholy tones.
Wilson shows us the character and life-destroying fates of an extraordinary woman and a tortured man, whom Davis and Boseman bring to amazing life. The great cast set in vivid street and studio scenes bring the Jazz Age to life.
Wilson’s play has been foreshortened into a too brief a movie—but it’s a monument to his insight into Black artists’ imagination and dedication. A must see—to understand how we all got here.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson, directed by George C. Wolfe, produced by Denzel Washington, music by Branford Marsalis—Streaming Netflix.
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, and Dusan Brown.