Released on Netflix at the tail end of 2020, George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s original 1982 play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a potent close to an important year for the Black community and is especially relevant this February during Black History Month. Wolfe, the film’s director, along with its screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, took on the hefty task of reinterpreting Wilson’s historically significant and politically charged play for a modern audience. This endeavor comes as part of an ongoing effort to bring each of Wilson’s plays to the screen, in an attempt to introduce wider audiences to the playwright’s broad library of works.
Wilson was known for his truthful and groundbreaking portrayals of Black America in the 20th century, often writing about the Black experience as it related to his own life through the lens of the generations that preceded him. In crafting these plays and bringing them to the forefront of theater, Wilson used his work to examine the long history of African Americans while allowing audiences to absorb this information through a medium that not only entertains but also educates. His characters and storylines add invaluable insight to the topic of race in America and have long been regarded as steadfast pillars of the Black community’s history on stage. This legacy is continued by Netflix’s adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which serves to awaken audiences to the racial climate of America in the late 1920s, now almost 100 years ago, and just how much of that remains the same today.
The film centers around Ma Rainey, depicted by powerhouse actress Viola Davis, a real-life blues singer from the 1920s whose legacy today often goes overlooked in favor of her more widely known counterpart, Bessie Smith, who is known as the “Empress of the Blues.” Ma and her band head up north during the Great Migration, during which around 6 million African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North in search of a better life and the promise of equal rights. What they found, however, was a community just as racially segregated as the south — only now, the bustling, spirited communities that Black folk had built and anchored in the South were nowhere to be found.
Wilson’s play uses central characters Ma Rainey and trumpet player Levee, a member of her band, to demonstrate the Black person’s struggle to rise up when pushed to the bottom of a power hierarchy dominated by whites. Ma comes to Chicago during 1927 to record her music at Paramount Studios with established white record producers Irvin and Sturdyvant, where she is neither beloved nor well respected yet. In a situation where her voice and image are being exploited for the gain of white record executives, Ma asserts her control in the only way possible — through opposition, demanding her every request be met and making the session tiringly difficult for all involved. Contrastingly, her bandmate, the bright-eyed, eager-to-succeed newcomer named Levee, believes that his talent and hard work will be enough to grant him success and acknowledgment for his achievements. But by the story’s end, Levee has been granted a rude awakening.
The fictionalized Levee, portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman in a riveting final role on screen, is representative of the new — he is young and talented and seeks to pave his own way past traditional blues music and toward the future of the music industry, something Ma stubbornly chooses to shun in favor of her traditional, signature blues style. Boseman illuminates the screen with his character’s presence, capturing both the cocky, upbeat nature of Levee as well as the darker sides of him. Levee is haunted by a scarring past, which has taught him to build up a strong guard when faced with whites who may wrong him but to always give a superficial, “Smile and say ‘yessir’” in order to gain their respect and succeed.
As Levee, Boseman adopted an impeccable accent and a bouncy, energetic affectation while prompting viewers to notice that this is only a front covering up the deep pain Levee experiences and cannot adequately deal with. When his character is fired from the band, he holds out hope that white producer Sturdyvant will allow him to produce his own songs, as he was promised. But when this request is denied to him, Levee realizes he will never be able to truly succeed, regardless of how much talent or drive he may possess. Levee’s explosive downfall ends up harming a fellow Black bandmate rather than the white men who have prompted it, illustrating how in this oppressive environment the underdog is fated to lose.
In the play, Levee is seen repeatedly trying to push through a door in the studio practice room, an action laden with symbolism. The film version includes an added component, in which Wolfe decided to have Levee break through the door only to find it leads to nowhere. “That is racism in America. You are promised something. You are promised that if you do the correct thing and you work really hard and you do everything you’re supposed to do you will break through that door, and everything will be possible,” Wolfe said. “And very frequently when you work through that door, there’s a wall on the other side.”
The movie largely stayed true to Wilson’s original play, which takes place over the course of one day in Chicago in the lives of Ma and her fellow blues musicians from the South. On screen, this brings a unique air of truth to the viewing experience. Audiences are not given grandiose plotlines or action-packed scenes shifting from location to location, as is common with Hollywood productions. Rather — in keeping with the style of a stage play — the characters live through their situation in a simplified form, maintaining the same costumes throughout most of the movie. Although the characters, made originally for the stage, may be larger than life, the film adaptation manages to pare them down to screen size while maintaining their vibrant spirit and rich, lively essence. Wolfe’s film takes Wilson’s nuanced, powerful symbolism and brings it to the screen, where it is beautifully illustrated through powerful performances by Davis, Boseman and their castmates. Both versions serve as a social commentary as well as a captivating storytelling experience. If anything, this work serves to communicate that the struggle to upend racism does not exist solely in a year such as 2020 or during Black History Month, but is an ongoing battle that we must remain aware and active in.