“Ma Rainey’s” Enduring Impact
Issue 11, Volume 111
Last year, Chadwick Boseman’s death cut deep into the collective consciousness. Many celebrities pass away each year—and each one is certainly a tragedy—but his death was felt profoundly on an enormous scale. On the day of his passing, Instagram stories and news channels were flooded with images of mourning, articulations of grief, and a deep appreciation for his cultural resonance.
Boseman was known for films in which he played venerated Black figures: the first Black Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013), the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” (2017), and the “godfather of soul” James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014). And while the effort and effect of all of his works are undeniable, there is no role he is better known for than the celebrated Black Panther within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) is the last film he ever worked on, but its reverberating impact is in-line with the rest of Boseman’s work. The film, produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black, and Dany Wolf, is adapted from the play of the same name by playwright August Wilson. Set in 1927 Chicago, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” tells the story of two blues musicians, the real mother of blues herself, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), and fictional Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), an impetuous trumpet player with unrivaled ambition.
But conflict pervades the film, as beyond Green and Rainey, there is the strain between the Black musicians and white producers. The Black musicians struggle to receive the respect and compensation they rightfully deserve for their music, while the white producers fail to confront their own prejudices.
In “Ma Rainey,” we watch these different dynamics come to a cymbal-crashing, trumpet-tweeting climax in their sweaty and sombre recording session. The confined space allows for an intense interrogation of the characters’ motivations. When Rainey demands a Coca Cola from her producer Sturdyvant, we begin to understand why she is unwilling to compromise with the producers about her accommodations during the recording session. Listening to Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Cutler (Colman Domingo)—two of Rainey’s jazz players—write off Green’s ambition, we get an internalized understanding of the lack of social mobility they share. And when we endure Green’s monologue in which he curses God, we empathize with the hopelessness and desperation he feels.
It’s no surprise that many critics were taken by the conversations between the characters. Wilson is known for his musical dialogue, with some calling it poetry. As Bob Mondello reports in an episode of NPR, Wilson’s “characters speak their stories in lyrical, eloquent, bluesy riffs.” Wilson achieved this quality in his dialogue through his musical influences, the greatest being the “four Bs” as he describes in a 1999 interview with The Paris Review—“the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden.”
By drawing from a variety of artistic mediums—namely music, literature, and the fine arts—Wilson has come to be known as the “theater’s poet of Black America.” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of his 10 critically-acclaimed plays, which have been collectively called “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” The series chronicles the Black experience throughout the twentieth century, with each play being set in a distinct decade. The other factor uniting them is the setting, with each play taking place in Wilson’s home city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—with the exception of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Beyond a few establishing shots, however, it’d be incredibly difficult to guess where the story takes place, as the film circulates two main indoor spaces. The sparse number of sets gives some indication that the movie is adapted from the theater. There are three sets to be exact: the recording studio, the basement, and the surrounding Chicago—images of which are mostly used to create a sense of setting. The majority of the drama happens within the first two rooms, and the lack of reliance on the surrounding allows the dialogue to intensify, disengaging the senses of the audience and giving the actors a chance to shine.
Every one of Wilson’s words is made impactful by the actors who speak them. Davis is a known powerhouse, and in this film she proves no different. In the confident disposition she adopts and the disdain she holds in her eyes, the audience gets the impression of Rainey, a woman who is jaded by the lifetime of disrespect she’s received.
“They don't care nothing about me,” she asserts. “All they want is my voice.”
But the real standout in this film is Boseman, who unflinchingly thrusts himself into the role of Green. From the way he fidgets, to the smirk he carries, to the way he screams—leaving his soul on the basement floor—we get an image of a man who’s not only looking to hum along to the tune of 1920s America but compose it too. He tries to combat the difficulties of being a Black man in the music industry with a recklessness marred by tragedy. And even though Green is fictional, his narrative resembles those of so many other real and talented Black musicians who were abused, exploited, and abandoned by the music industry they helped define.
And he grasps the harsh reality of his struggle, as he describes his situation to Cutler: “I ain’t had nothing but bad luck all my life. Couldn’t get no worse. What the [EXPLETIVE] I care about some bad luck?”
It’s, of course, not bad luck Green is a victim of, but the consequences of systemic racism and prejudice. It is through the realities of these individual characters—Rainey, Green, and Toledo—that we’re able to construct a larger image of the repercussions of this system. And it's the intimacy that’s fostered in these snapshots that contributes to an empathy the audience carries with them—whether it’s after they close the Netflix tab or leave the physical theater.
However the story comes to you, the importance of Wilson’s narratives is underscored: by raising questions of identity, racial and otherwise, he articulates an inherited cultural legacy, crafting his own along the way.