Blues music is rooted in African American culture and experience. Ma Rainey lets you know that.
Denzel Washington and George C. Wolfe’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brings August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same title to life. Led by Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, and Glynn Turman, the all-star cast brings the blues to life, musically and socio-politically.
The movie is set in 1927, during a recording session at Paramount Studios in Chicago, Illinois. In the confined space of a few specific rooms, the movie presents two core themes: the evolving and tense crusade of Black life, this cultural conflict between tradition and modernity; and the superpowers of Black women.
In the opening scene, Ma Rainey performs in a tent with her band, attracting audiences of all genders and ages, from teenage boys to old couples. Here, both playwright and production emphasise the power of Black community and Black creation — how Black communities supported and served each other. This starkly contrasts with what awaits Ma Rainey when she travels up north to record with Paramount. There, in the words of director George C. Wolfe, her worth and value have to be “negotiated on a moment-to-moment basis with a white power structure”.
Knowing the context of the blues is what really brings magic, majesty, and the music of the movie alive. Blues music was born when African-Americans were emancipated and no longer enslaved. It was also fostered during the Great Migration, when Black people who fled the brutality of the American south met with the similar disenfranchisement of the industrialised north. Black people went through radical change, finally finding autonomy over their personal lives, relationships, needs, and desires. In her essay Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, activist Angela Davis summed up the blues music era as the “aesthetic evidence of new psychosocial realities within the black population”.
The late Boseman plays Levee, the film’s leading man, a renegade and trumpet player in Ma Rainey’s band. The band’s youngest member represents today’s younger Black generation, who resist traditional ideals and do not conform to the status quo. Chadwick Boseman’s ability as an artist and actor has always been clear, yet his portrayal of Levee is so powerful that I saw my identity as a Black man reflected in him. I saw the internal challenges that I face. His plans for the band to begin playing more modern music for his dancing generation is met with opposition from Ma Rainey. The Mother of Blues refuses to play his re-arrangement of one of her songs. She is adamant that things will be done the way they always are, her way. This nods to a bigger discussion about the portrayal of Black female autonomy, both economically and socially.
Davis’ Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, is a Black woman who defies all of the gender limitations of her time. From the beginning of the film right until the end credits, she demands respect and she demands money up front. The blues brought a new psychological reality for Black women. The music allowed them to own their desires, both platonic and sexual. As performers they held jurisdiction over their bodies and voices. A Black woman who held her value and worth front and centre whilst withstanding the diminishing and oppressive resistance of white patriarchy should be commemorated.
The ending of the film feels like a cliffhanger when thinking about today's society. Black people and culture are continually appropriated by White power structures and White people for monetary gain. Black culture is vilified in mainstream media. It is appropriated and stripped of its soul, mutilated from the masterpiece it is into a caricature that White people present as comical or urban.
As Viola Davis says herself in Netflix’s documentary about the making of Ma Rainey, “blues music belongs to the African American experience, it’s ours as much as collard greens and hog maw and chitlins and all of that. As much as we took the leftovers of everything and we transformed it into this like beautiful alchemy, into art and something beautiful. That's how I see blues music. It's ours.”
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