Film & Television

Viola Davis as ‘Ma Rainey’: Lady Sings the Blues

Black vs. white. Man vs. woman. New vs. old. North vs. South. There is so much tension wedged into the 90-minute screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that when tragedy strikes in the final act, it feels not just predictable but inevitable.

Set in a single afternoon in 1927 Chicago, the film is impeccably directed by George C. Wolfe, co-produced by Denzel Washington, and adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It’s part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays dramatizing the African American experience in ten different decades. Ma Rainey is the only one not set in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s hometown. It’s also the only one that draws inspiration from a historic figure.

Gertrude Pridgett was born in the 1880s and began to perform as a young teen in talent shows, at the First African Baptist Church, and in Black minstrel shows. She adopted her stage name “Ma” Rainey when she married musician “Pa” Rainey in 1904. They performed together under a variety of stage names (some of which sound incredibly racist to the modern ear) until one night in Missouri when she heard a woman singing a sad song about an unfaithful man. Ma added it to her repertoire, and claimed to have invented the term “the blues” when asked about it. Soon, she and Pa were touring as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.”

Ma Rainey was a musical innovator whose fame grew as more artists embraced and expanded upon her musical style. She started recording in the 1920s and lived by her own rules, notoriously romancing women after she and Pa divorced. She was arrested in 1925 for participating in an all-female orgy and responded by writing a defiant song celebrating her sexuality, “Prove it on Me Blues” (I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men). Earlier queer allusions in her lyrics can be found in 1923’s “The Bo-Weavil Blues” (I don’t want no man/To put no sugar in my tea) and 1924’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” (Goin’ downtown to spread the news/State Street women wearin’ brogan shoes). Ma eventually retired and returned to Georgia, where she ran theaters until her death in 1939.

Wilson, who died 75 years later, was also a trailblazer. He was only the second (and remains the most recent) Black playwright to win a Tony Award. He was nominated for Ma Rainey, but won two years later for Fences (for which he also won the first of two Pulitzers). He has been called “Theater’s poet of Black America.” His inspiration was always the blues, as he explained in multiple interviews, including one with Bill Moyers in 1988: 

“The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression and the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves in. And contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work. And as part of the oral tradition, this is a way of passing along information. And in order to — if you’re going to tell someone a story, if you want to keep information alive — you have to make it memorable so that the person hearing it will go tell someone else. That’s how it stays alive. So blues was a way of doing that.” 

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson lets Ma explain it her own way: “You sing cause that’s a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. Blues always been there. But if they wanna call me the mother of blues, that’s all right with me. It don’t hurt none.”

On Broadway (originally in 1984 and in a revival in 2002), Ma was played by, respectively, Theresa Merritt and Whoopi Goldberg. Onscreen, the “mother of the blues” is brought back to life by a practically unrecognizable, but powerful as ever, Viola Davis. This isn’t Davis’s first Wilson role; she won both an Oscar and a Tony as Rose Maxon in Fences. A devoted fan of the late playwright, she describes Wilson this way: “He captures our humor, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Davis turn in a less than extraordinary performance, and she gives her all once again to Ma. In heavy makeup and prosthetic gold teeth, Davis is fleshier, more earthy, and more sensual than usual. Although she doesn’t do her own singing (Branford Marsalis, responsible for the film’s score, enlisted former-Ikette Maxayn Lewis), Davis fully inhabits Ma’s signature personality, performance, and presence. 

And what a presence!

When Ma talks, people listen. Although she’s an hour late for her recording session and gets into an altercation with a white traffic cop outside the studio, nothing happens until Ma is good and ready: “Mama don’t stand for no shit.” Whether that’s demanding the three Coca Colas stipulated in her contract or insisting her stuttering nephew record the song’s intro, no matter how much vinyl is wasted, it’s Ma’s way or the highway. Something that all her band (“We’re just an accompaniment band”) understands. 

All, that is, except Levee.

Levee is Ma’s hot — and hotheaded — young trumpeter, played, in his final awe-inspiring role, by the late Chadwick Boseman. Levee is cocky, spending a week’s salary on flashy shoes, sweet-talking Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and boasting to the older musicians that he’ll have his own band and contract soon. They humor him, tease him, and try to advise him, but to no avail.

Levee has experienced the full horror of the Jim Crow South. As a child, he witnessed a brutal attack on his mother that left him physically (and forever psychologically) scarred. Now, trying to break into the music business, he “yessirs” the white man to his face, something he learned from his father, but he’s just waiting for his turn. “You come telling me I’m spooked up with the white man. You let one of them mess with me, I’ll show you how spooked up I am.”

Although they have few scenes together, both Ma and Levee are trying to make the most of an undeniably bad situation. Levee rearranges Ma’s music for a new, younger audience, encouraged by her white manager (Jeremy Shamos) and producer (Jonny Coyne). “Levee’s arrangement gives the people what they want. It makes them excited, forget about their troubles.” Ma is having none of it. “I’m singing Ma Rainey’s song, I ain’t singing no Levee song.” Her authority — limited as it is to a particular sweltering afternoon between her arrival and the time when the record company has its masters and her signed release — is absolute.

In between sets, Ma confides in her trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo). “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” Even her manager, she tells him, has invited her to his home only once — to sing for his white friends.

At first glance, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may appear to be telling the story of a woman who succeeded beyond the odds. Ma has an entourage, a new car, a fur stole. Yet even among Chicago’s so-called “new Negroes,” the polite middle class society she walks past in the lobby of her hotel, she’s an outsider. Her power lies only in her ability to line the pockets of white men. And, even that, she knows, has an expiration date.

Levee is blind to — or at least refuses to accept — his own limitations. He has rage inside that he can’t act on, and when he finally breaks, he doesn’t attack Ma or the white record producer who goes back on his promises and pays him a paltry five dollars “to take his songs off his hands”; he attacks perhaps the most benign of all the story’s characters. 

In popular critical lingo, I can accurately say that seeing Davis and Boseman in Ma Rainey is like watching an acting master class. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe and SAG awards; it’s a fairly sure bet they’ll receive Academy Award nods too. But, despite the excellence of their work and the film, there is much to mourn. Boseman’s show-stopping performance only hints at the decades of fine work he would have delivered had he not died so young. And Wilson’s underlying message about the ironies of Black success in white America still resonates.

One of the first course changes of the Biden administration was to revive the plan to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. Although that idea is celebrated by many progressives, there is also an argument that putting a Black woman on currency ignores the deplorable fact that for generations, Black women were, quite literally a form of currency — to be bought, sold, and bartered. Sixty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Ma’s worth is still measured only by money. And Levee, despite big talent and bigger dreams, is left with nothing.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix.


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