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The Parallel Paths of Pain and Joy

Between Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, another Oscar-worthy turn from Viola Davis, and capturing the Black experience through the story of a blues legend, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a wrenching tale—and one of the most moving films of the year

Netflix/Ringer illustration

There’s a shot near the end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in which Levee, a band member played by the late Chadwick Boseman, is boxed in by brick walls, his head tilted back in surrender to the slim patch of sky overhead. On three different occasions in the film, he attempts to gain access to this enclosure. On the first try, Levee finds that the green metal slab of a door that leads toward the area is jammed shut. He pushes against the door to little avail, then turns to his fellow bandmates and remarks, “Damn, they won’t leave well enough alone,” as if to suggest that this lack of accessibility is the result of a phantom actor. The second time he reaches for the door, it’s less an attempt to break through than a simple force of habit: He gives the door a couple of tugs without a thought, then stops when it becomes clear, again, that it won’t submit to his will. The third and final attempt occurs after most of the film’s events have transpired. By this point in the story, Levee is furious, not just at the door, but in the way that only someone who has been cheated out of what they believe they are owed can be. So he rips and tugs and kicks and flies at the door, and finally, after waging this self-contained war against the gateway that blocks his desires, bursts through to find a kingdom of nothing more than gravel, sand, and walls. So many walls.

It’s all very fleeting. He takes a breath and the shot ends. But that feeling that the film—and the play and the music that it’s based on—are each so obsessed with, well, it’s all right there. You’ve just got to know where to look.

Released last Friday on Netflix, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 drama of the same name. Following a day in the life of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her band of musicians, it is an exploration of the weight of American history and the music formed conjointly with it. But like Rainey’s own music, it is also a story of survival, joy, and pain.

Wilson was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, in 1945, to a German immigrant father and a Southern Black mother. A few years after his birth, Wilson’s dad exited his life for good, leaving his mom to raise him on her own. Wilson was a child of the great migration, both in literal terms and in an artistic sense. In a career that stretched over 40 years, his work provided an uncommon window into 20th-century Black life. Each of his plays was set in a different decade, a different phase in a shared history.

He was enthralled with midcentury Black art—the vitality of Romare Bearden’s visual works, the searing honesty of James Baldwin’s literature. No artist or art form, though, moved him quite like the blues. “The wellspring of my art” is what he called it. When Wilson was a child, he and his mother lived in a rooming house; he used to hate it and his neighbors. “After I discovered the blues I began to look at the people in the house a little differently,” he once said. “I began to see a value that I simply hadn’t seen before, I discovered a beauty and a nobility to [see] what in essence was their struggle simply to stay alive—their struggle to survive.”

At the time of Wilson’s death in 2005, he had written 16 total plays, winning Pulitzer prizes in 1987 and 1990 for Fences and The Piano Lesson, respectively. Since then, his work has taken on a second life. In 2015, Denzel Washington negotiated production rights to adapt the final 10 of Wilson’s plays, known as his “Pittsburg Cycle.” One year later, Washington directed and starred alongside Viola Davis (who also takes the main billing in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) in a Paramount-backed adaptation of Fences. The film was met with critical acclaim, as Davis became the seventh Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second of Wilson’s works to make the crossover to Hollywood—and in the wake of Boseman’s unexpected passing, the film stands as an artifact at the intersection of multiple legacies. For viewers searching for some semblance of closure, the film provides a final glare into the mind of a generational leading-man. But while the weight and grandeur of Boseman’s final performance threatens to dominate the film, the true sun around which the narrative rotates is Davis’s Ma Rainey.

In the run-up to the movie’s release, Davis pledged to avoid the pitfalls that have traditionally accompanied Hollywood portrayals of figures like Rainey. “I didn’t want to reduce any aspect of her life because people just didn’t want to see it, or it’s too much, it’s not attractive, it’s not whatever, because in doing that, I would be dishonoring her,” Davis told the New York Daily News. “That’s already what history threatened to do to her, and actually did do to her, was render her extinct.”

For the role, Davis wore gold grills that spanned both rows of teeth. She coated her cheekbones in the era’s rouge-y makeup, and strutted in luxurious furs and regal headwear. In each scene she carried a steady gloss of sweat. This formulation of Rainey was constructed in spite of the relatively few documented images of the woman known across bayous and countrysides as the “Mother of the Blues.” Born Gertrude Pridgett in either 1886 or 1882 (the exact date is unclear), Ma Rainey grew up in the shadow of slavery. She was inseparably Southern, as was the music she helped create. Her skin was dark and her figure was full. She loved whomever she pleased.

In “Prove It on Me Blues,” a track recorded in 1928, Rainey boasted:

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men

Her songs frequently centered on the intimacies of Black life and the lived experiences of Black women. In her 1999 text Blues Legacy and Black Feminism, activist and scholar Angela Davis refers to the sexual intimacy of Rainey’s blues as “a mediator between historical disappointment and the new social realities of an evolving African American community.” In the wake of emancipation, blues was the first in a long line of music that directly explored the interior lives of the people most excluded from the mechanisms of American power.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is both reverential to this legacy and yet all the more interested in exploring its consequences: How do those at the very lowest social rungs manage to both internalize and respond to their status? What does that say about them and the modes to which they are disempowered? There are, in essence, two paths in the film. On one end stands Rainey, fully conscious of the precarity presented by her body and mind. When we first see her on screen she is exiting an affluent Black-owned hotel. Her lover, Dussie Mae, and her teenage nephew Sylvester stand directly beside her; upon sensing the disturbance their presence has caused in the bourgeois watering hole, Rainey grabs hold of each of their arms in defiance.

At the recording studio she is regarded as a menace by both her white manager and the white record executive overseeing the project. In the beginning of the session, she refuses their attempts to force her to record an updated version of her song “Black Bottom” because it strays too far from her artistic roots. Later, she insists upon her nephew conducting the roll call for the track, in spite of his debilitating stutter. When her manager fails to provide her with a simple bottle of Coca-Cola, she halts the entire proceedings. All of these are, of course, tests, forcing those around her to reveal their true motives and allegiances. “They don’t care nothing about me, all they want is my voice,” she says with disgust to her bandleader, Cutler (Colman Domingo). “Well I done learned that, and they’re going to treat me the way I wanna be treated no matter how much it hurt them.”

As Rainey, Davis bounces between tendencies of self-protection and mothering. In one scene she promises Dussie Mae a new pair of shoes, while intimately kissing the creases of her neck; in another, she assures Sylvester that the band will wait as long as it takes for him to learn how to introduce them without error. She is committed to pulling up those she cares for, with what social mobility she has accrued over her time in the spotlight. Rainey’s may not be a permanent power, but she will use it for as long as she can.

Levee bends toward the same truth, but in a different direction. He sees that there is no promise of justice in this crooked world and is, instead, swallowed up by it. It is impossible to separate Boseman’s performance from his real-life death. In the most arresting of his monologues, Levee holds court for nearly five minutes straight, painstakingly recounting both the sexual assault of his mother by a group of white men and his father’s subsequent death in an attempt to avenge her. The skin around the outer edges of Boseman’s eyes strain and flutter while he unveils a blackened scar on his chest, a memento of the attack. Later in the film, another argument—about the nature of God, the devil, and the meaning of life—gets so heated that he pulls out a knife and swings at Cutler, challenging God to strike him down right then and there. The bit is all the more haunting knowing the actor’s ultimate fate. If Davis’s character is a reminder of the value of community, Boseman’s final theatrical testament is a warning of the most existential kind. Navigating a world of jagged edges and steep fissures is never a matter of motivation or will. Power cannot be out-hated, and one cannot outmaneuver it by themselves. What Boseman, and Wilson before him, could not let us forget, is that a life devoted to these pursuits seals a fate worse than death.

There are few winners in this tale. By the end of the film Levee is twisted and broken, having succumbed to hate in pursuit of a manhood he could never attain. Rainey finds a way to navigate the gauntlet while holding onto some semblance of her own humanity but, as we see, the industry—the great reaper of dreams—will surely beckon once more. In real life, Rainey died in relative disrepute. “Housekeeping” was the profession written on her death certificate. If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom carries one final lesson it is identical to that of the music and figure it’s based on: Sometimes that spot you’re trying to reach is a trap; for some folks, most spots are. “You don’t sing to feel better,” Rainey reminds us. “You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”