'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Brings August Wilson To The Screen With Class
Viola Davis stars as famous blues singer
"The Piano Lesson" (1995)
"American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand" (2015)
August Wilson chronicled African American life in his Pittsburgh Cycle or 20th Century Cycle of 10 plays, each focusing on a different decade. Now Denzel Washington wants to ensure that those plays make it to the screen. "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" is the second Wilson play he has produced for the screen and it’s now available on Netflix.
Forget Marvel, DC or Lucasfilms plans for massive franchise story arcs. I am excited about Washington's commitment to bringing all ten of Wilson's plays to the screen and already talking about mixing it up with stage directors who have worked in film like Kenny Leon and Debbie Allen, as well as young independent film talents like Barry Jenkins and Ryan Coogler.
With “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” August Wilson offers a fictional story about a real blues singer in 1927 Chicago (it's the only play in the Pittsburgh Cycle set outside that city). The film sets the tone by showing us Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) in the full glory of her performing a song. The sequence begins in a tent and transitions to a full-fledged production number on stage. We see how she fully engages the crowd and controls the stage except for when Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final screen role) tries to steal the spotlight with some fancy trumpet work.
The film then jumps to a Chicago recording studio where everyone is waiting for Ma Rainey to show up. But she's not late. She is simply demonstrating her power and control. She has come north to record for a white record label and there are multiple tensions at play: between her and the white producers; between her and Levee; among the band members; and with Levee himself.
Directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film version of "Ma Rainey" feels neither like a filmed stage production nor a play arbitrarily opened up for the screen. It feels like a vibrant and immediate work. Wolfe makes us feel the oppressive heat at every turn and that only raises the already hot tensions.
In the press materials Wolfe stated: "Nostalgia puts a patina on history and when you do that you discredit texture of the people who lived through that moment."
Paying heed to history; to the past is key to all of Wilson's plays. It can be about acknowledging the past and paying it the respect it deserves before a new generation moves on to make its own mark, or it can be about how one's past can be hard or impossible to shake or escape. But the past is always in the room demanding its due.
In the case of Levee, the character gains an added poignance and tragedy by being the last performance by Boseman who died earlier this year after battling cancer that he had kept secret from the public. Levee and Boseman are both people filled with passion and talent, and neither one deserved the fate they were handed. Boseman will at least be well-remembered for his contribution to films that will live on forever. But Levee is dealt a particularly cruel hand and the film's final moment stings in a way that makes the story resonate for audiences today.
Screenwriter Santiago-Hudson was in San Diego earlier this year to direct Wilson's "Jitney" at the Old Globe Theater. "Ma Rainey" was the first Wilson play he ever saw and it hooked him.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. 1984. Court Theatre Broadway. I walked in, snuck in at intermission, sat on the stairs and started watching these people talk. And I just started crying and I just didn't believe that people would celebrate the people that I knew so intimately. And then I saw that this writer was doing it and I just chased him. Notes, appearances, showing up, begging for auditions until I got in and when I got in he and I immediately within a very short time bonded,"
Santiago-Hudson said Wilson's plays always remind him of home.
"I'm home. I know these people intimately. I know the way they smell."
Wilson's writing has a certain musicality that is particularly suited to the stage and to bouncing off those four walls of a theater in front of a live audience. So Santiago-Hudson had a challenge in translating that to the screen.
"The stage people come to listen, in films they come to watch," he said. "If you come to Shakespeare, you come to listen. If you come to Chekov, if you come to Ibsen, you come to listen. With August Wilson you come to listen. Motion pictures tell a story with pictures more than words. So my challenge when I wrote 'Ma Rainey' the movie was how do I save the arias as many as I can. What are the most important arias? And then how do I make some Arias visual? How do I make a cinematic?"
Santiago-Hudson keeps those beautiful emotional arias that Hudson gives his characters and then Wolfe and the actors make them truly sing in the film.
While each character is important in his or her own right, the story is also about the Blues. Wilson lets Ma Rainey have this elegant assessment of the music: “White folks don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life.”
Wilson understood life and now his great humanity is being vividly translated to the screen in films like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to an early holiday gift by checking the film out now.