Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – My Views *with spoilers*

The Real Ma Rainey, mother of the Blues, in a 1994 postage stamp.
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

Right away the movie plays with our expectations – dark woods, eerie wildlife sounds, the discordant rhythm of running feet, before dark figures running come in to view, and heavy breathing and barking dogs sound; we are seasoned viewers, we know the language of film and we have seen this scene before from Roots to Underground; runaways, it is a trope of the slave narrative, our bodies remember the pain and begin to despair that it’s going to be one of those movies. It’s Christmas and we’re not in the mood to be traumatized by art. Then before we can stay or not stay, it – psyche! – inverts our expectations as the tent appears on screen, a spot of light in the darkness. It lets some of the air out and rewards us for staying with a joyous and raucous stage-tent scene, a big performance set piece that introduces the key characters and the music at the heart of the film, letting us in to a space where Black people in 1927 can be themselves fully, no white gaze. A space where the Blues belies its name by bringing the people, by bringing us, euphoria.

This is not a review. Just a review of moments that resonated.

Moments…

Like the way sound is used to transition out of the tent from music in the rural backwoods to the sounds of sewing machines and factories, the train whistle, car sounds, the bump bump bump bump base sound in the score as the members of the band begin to move through the city, specifically Chicago, a city at the heart of the great Black migration from the South, a city on the up, where Black people are hardworking and stylish and things are happening. A city we leave outside for the sealed, dinghy sweatbox of the recording studio – helmed by two tightly wound white men.

Also the cut of Cutler’s suit, that tight top button. And Levee’s $11 yellow shoes.

And there he is, Chadwick Boseman (thinner now that we know what to look for but so full of life) in his last role…ever. RIP to the King, long live the King.

The conked hair.

Classism and possibly colourism. Though Ma is apparently staying in a quality Black establishment, the looks she gets – for being showbiz? dark-skinned? a lesbian? gaudy (unrespectable)? – as she descends the stairs, is telling. That this introduction to the Ma character overlaps with the conversation between the “boys” in the band about old and new style of music, country v city sensibilities (apparently she’s packing them in in Memphis but her records aren’t selling in Harlem) is an effective directorial choice.

The foreshadowing – the stepped on shoe, the irritation it sparks but that irritation doesn’t blow over the way it will later when Levee’s pent up, misdirected rage needs an outlet.

Levee’s line about Toledo’s shoes “he ain’t nothing but a sharecropper” and its signaling of how material things are used to reinvent the self – in Levee’s mind Toledo is less and country, lesser still, for not having the flyest (in our era we would say certain name brand) shoes; meanwhile, Toledo’s established as someone who reads and thinks, and largely minds his own business, but is mocked by Levee, and the others in a rare moment of companionship, for not having the ‘right’ shoes. There’s layers to this story. It’s not just about recording music, it’s about negotiating Blackness within and beyond the Black community in a sweltering time for Black people in America – while 1927 had no major uprisings (the Black History timeline shows it as the year the Harlem Globetrotters were formed, the year Black nationalist Marcus Garvey was deported, and the year Black radio was born), the period generally is one of the peak period of the great Black migration (from the racial oppression of the American south to the racial inequities of the American north) was not without significance. Racial violence was at a peak, the Tulsa massacre was only six years earlier in 1921; Rosewood just four years earlier in 1923. The newspaper in Toledo’s hand screams LYNCHING in all caps.

Ma bellying up to that cop is a rare incidence on film of a Black person challenging the police state on film and walking away unbruised; I don’t mind saying that scene made me tense – while establishing Ma as someone unafraid to confront the power structure. Of course, the situation is only resolved by the white manager greasing the palms of the white cop – which underscores that Ma only really wields power in that situation inasmuch as the white manager still needs something from her enough to intervene.

That moment of Ma ogling her girlfriend Dussie Mae’s ass (her irritation with Dussie Mae’s “flaunting” said ass later when she’s irritated). Something about that feels like an LGBTQIA moment we haven’t quite seen on screen before. I should add that growl she gives as she feels Dussie Mae up and croons to her. Dussie Mae catering to Ma, slipping on her more comfortable shoes while Ma sings playfully about her corns. New shit.

The way Viola sits as Ma – like the rare girl who’s never been told “close your legs”, or who’s heard it a million times and decided, fuck that.

The battle over which version of Ma’s signature song they’re going to sing – Ma or Levee backed by the white men – who do we expect to win that fight, expectations subverted again. Ma knows what power she holds while they want something from her and is not hesitant about wielding it, though she knows (as we later realize) that her power is waning (that battle between the old, represented by Ma, and new represented by the likes of Bessie Smith – as played by Queen Latifah in the also very good biopic Bessie, in which Monique played Ma Rainey). Bessie Smith, Ma herself acknowledges, is nipping at Ma’s heals, outselling her in terms of records if not (yet) live performances – a commentary on the record industry, which does this to this day, deciding on the more palatable idea of Blackness which may not always gel with the people’s own tastes. We’ll see an extreme example of this by the very end when the practice of white singers doing over and popularizing Black songs is illustrated. (ETA) Because I just saw a YouTube video in which a white YouTuber, who otherwise praised the film, wondered what was the significance of the white band doing Levee’s song at the end, saying how he didn’t see how it connected back to the film – a film in which Ma explicitly says all they want to do is take/use, in which we explicitly see them take Levee’s song for $5 and not give him a chance to put his own band together and record it fueling the climactic tragedy, using that same song, the jelly roll song we hear him working on throughout, for the final scene – like did you watch the film, sir, and have you never heard about Little Richard (or maybe not, since Pat Boone re-recorded his songs like ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’). Sigh. (end ETA). A(nother) real life example is ‘Hound Dog’, made popular by the ‘King of Rock ‘n Roll’ (Elvis Presley) in 1956 and performed initially in 1952 by the lesser known Big Mama Thornton (and frankly making more sense sung by a woman). Appropriation (the use of someone’s, usually an ethnic, marginalized group’s, art or culture without credit or acknowledgment, or as explored in the Netflix documentary The Lion’s Share re The Lion Sleeps Tonight, originally Mbube from South Africa, compensation, framing it as your own) isn’t new; the sad thing is, it still happens.

The performances – Viola as Ma, Chadwick as Levee, but also Colmon Domingo as Cutler – the line delivery on “I don’t think nobody so much give a damn…Sylvester, look here” (moving on) when Levee says “you don’t know me, you don’t know what I’ll do.” Of course, the sad irony is that maybe we should have given a damn, maybe things would have turned out different.

The whole “coldcocacola” sequence. I feel you, Ma.

Viola’s Oscar clip “they don’t care nothing about me; all they want is my voice”. A moment that reveals she’s as aware of her vulnerability as her power.

Ma scratching at her wig ’cause her scalp itches – as she talks – if that isn’t an authentic hair moment (eclipsed only by another Viola character Annalise Keating in How to get away with Murder taking off her wig to reveal her natural low fro).

“Music will do that, it fills things up… we don’t sing cause we feel bad, we sing cause that’s a way of understanding life” – one of Ma’s quieter and more meaningful moments. I feel the same way about music.

My most laugh out loud moment – and I didn’t expect there to be so many of them – is the moment when her manager tries to move things along as her nephew struggles with doing the intro to the title song through his stutter; she turns and gives him a look – these kids today don’t know bout the look but the look had the power to stop foolishness. And it stopped him right away.

Watching Toledo and Slow Drag play, you realize that much as Levee down talks the music, they enjoy playing it.

And you will enjoy watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The writing is great; it’s based on an August Wilson play…duh. The performances chef’s kiss. And while it is a bit stagey…again duh… it is not static. It doesn’t dip; the quiet moments don’t cause the pacing to lag, they draw you in to the emotion and remind you that the recording of Ma’s record is the least of what’s happening. The atmospherics – the browns and greens, yellow to white colour palette of the scenery and some of the costuming, the heat evidenced by the washed out sky, the wet skin, and Ma’s ever present fan – put you in the space, the head space, yes, but also the physical space. I know some of you all are worried that it’ll be a bit like healthy eating – good for you but no fun. And this isn’t empty calories, true, but it is fun. Go watch.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.

4 thoughts on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – My Views *with spoilers*

  1. Lord Joanne,
    This “review” is right on time. I watched it last night – and like you said, that opening scene for me was just like you said. And so many layers, I almost forgot most of the movie takes place on just the one day of recording.
    The release of Levee’s pent up issues (to put it mildly) was heartbreaking and it didn’t see that coming. I didn’t understand why he didn’t take his music score back ’cause he knew it was worth more than $5. And as was remarked in the “Making Of” monologues, when that was taken away from him what did he have left?While the beginning fooled me, the end didn’t. It was no surprise to see the white boy singing the song. The final indignity was the trumpeter playing what would surely have been Levee’s line.
    Awesome film. Absolutely wonderful review!

    • Something I realize I didn’t touch on in the review that is at the core of race relations (within systemic racism, where racism is prejudice backed by power, especially in that time) is that for Levee beyond being stunned by having his dream (which he wants more than his next breath) snatched away right after having the rug pulled out from under him (losing his job which he wants no matter what he says) is completely powerless. He doesn’t even have the leverage someone like Ma has and we’ve seen before that he is conditioned by fear (and memory) to shuck and jive in the face of whiteness (for all his bravado in its absence). He doesn’t have the tools to challenge that man and his soul crushing, dream killing ‘offer’ – if artistes today say ‘yes’ to bad deals imagine 1927. And the Man knows this too which is why he doesn’t wait for an answer. What we are conditioned to do (and we saw this foreshadowed with earlier altercations) is turn that anger, that rage on each other; lash out at someone who looks like us over our feeling of powerlessness because in a way we are really lashing out at ourselves – it is anger turned inward, a form of depression and self-harm. Levee is a very tragic figure…they all are in their way because ultimately the system is bigger than them.

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