138. The Lady Sings The Blues, A Story of Survival, Joy, Pain

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 24 May 2021
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: IMDb.com

African-American Tony-winning Director, George C. Wolfe’s $20 million adaptation of the black playwright, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, won Chadwick Boseman a posthumous Golden Globe, but failed to win either him nor the equally brilliant Viola Davis an Oscar at last month’s awards in Tinseltown. In the age of COVID, this movie was released on Netflix in December 2020, and has garnered rave reviews.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film about a legendary blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis) – the “Mother of the Blues” – who has migrated from Georgia to Chicago as part of “the Great Migration” of blacks from the post-bellum South to the industrialised North.  The movie takes place on a single sweltering summer day in a run-down recording studio in 1927. Two white executives oversee the turbulent session as a trio of band members – pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – engage in lively banter with the brilliant trumpeter, Levee Green (Chadwich Boseman). Levee is seeking to create a new funkier sound that better fits the Zeitgeist.  He is also trying to convince the white producers to let him record his own songs. Through their rich dialogue, the band members expose issues of powerlessness, humiliation, and brutalization in apartheid America.

The superstar singer arrives an hour late for the recording with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). She demands to be provided with Coca-Cola and insists that her nephew – who has a bad stammer – speak the introduction to the album, leading to countless retakes. In the end, the two strong-headed main characters – Ma Rainey and Levee – clash, as each seeks to outcompete the other. Ma Rainey eventually fires Levee, who ends up selling his songs to the white producer for a pittance.

The central actors in the movie are Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis wanted to capture Ma Rainey’s authentic grease face and gold-grilled teeth, and deliberately set out not to glamorize her. Rainey is a stubborn and demanding diva who knows her true worth, and is conscious of the exploitation of her talent by white producers. But this indomitable black Mother Courage still insists on being treated with respect. As she complains: “All they care about is my voice.”

Boseman died at 43 in August 2020, and this film is an elegy to his incredible talent. His performance rivals his superlative depiction of James Brown in the 2014 biopic, Get on Up, as well as the more light-hearted King T’Challa in the 2018 Black Panther. He pours his heart and soul into a difficult role of a charming, arrogant, angry, insecure, impetuous, and traumatized young man who watched his mother being raped by nine white men at the age of eight. He bears a scar inflicted in his bid to fight off these men. But the emotional scars are just as raw. Boseman is a dapper, talented individual brimming with ambition who is ultimately destroyed by the racist society that prevents its fulfillment.

Despite the brilliance of the acting, Ma Rainey feels a bit too much like a play, and its languid pace and long monologues can be tiring. More could have been done in the city of Chicago.  Angelica Jade Bastién criticized the film’s downplaying of Ma Rainey’s queerness, and felt that the movie never really explored its big ideas. In contrast, Peter Bradshaw described Ma Rainey as “A detonation of pure acting firepower…ferociously intelligent and violently focused, an opera of passion and pain,” while Lex Pryor similarly regarded the film as “a story of survival, joy, and pain.”  This is a vintage offering by America’s Black Bard – August Wilson – that vividly depicts the melancholy blues, Black suffering, and white exploitation.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.