Trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) calls the Cotter story blasphemy, ‘a bunch of fool talk’. But virtuosic trumpet player Levee, who lost his faith to horrific trauma experienced in childhood, wants to know where Elija Cotter is right now. If making a dirty deal with Beelzebub is the only way to bend the world to his will, then Levee will shake hands in an instant (he eats bad luck every day for breakfast, he says).
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
The only way for a Black man to enjoy the same freedom as his White counterpart in the 1920's is to sell his soul to the devil. That much is made clear by double-bassist Slow Drag’s story about one Elija Cotter, who did just that and literally got away with murder, while amassing a fortune by telling others how to sign up. This anecdote sparks a hoopla in the dank rehearsal room in the basement of a Chicago recording studio, where Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and the rest of Ma’s band are to record ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ – the hit song that gives August Wilson’s 1982 play, and George C. Wolfe’s new film adaptation, its title.
Levee is played by the late Chadwick Boseman, who is incendiary here in his final role, lending the character such an irresistible force that you think he might just charm his way to the Top, devilish dealings or not. There’s an infectious bounce to Levee’s step – especially in his shiny new shoes, which he bought on impulse with money he won from shooting craps with Cutler the night before. Of course, everything you know about dramatic structure and structural racism suggests that the ground will be cut out from under the trumpet player’s ostentatious yellow wingtips soon enough.
The beginning of the film is dominated by an argument over how to record the hit song of the title. Levee wants to use his more danceable, jazzed up arrangement. ‘I knows how to play real music,’ he says. ‘Not this old jug-band shit. I got style!’ That he does, and his plan is to start his own band after using this recording to springboard his career. Toledo (Glynn Turman), piano player and band philosopher, snaps back, ‘Style ain’t nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.’ That just about sums up Cutler and Slow Drag’s positions, too; these older, more seasoned musicians just want to get in, get paid, and get out. Ultimately, they’re arguing the toss: whatever Ma says goes.
As Ma Rainey, Viola Davis is an immovable, unrufflable force with such gravitas it’s as if even the moon would shrink to a ping pong ball if she glared at it. She arrives, like a queen with her courtiers, accompanied by an entourage, her nephew Slyvester (Dusan Brown) and girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Ma is of the give-them-an-inch-they'll-take-a-mile school of being an openly gay African American woman in the 1920s, a philosophy that extends even to the Chicago Police Force. When Sylvester crashes her car pulling up to the recording studio, Ma tells her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) that he’d better tell the Policeman on the scene who he’s dealing with: Madame Rainey!
Ma leaves Irvin to temper the cop and enters the recording studio. From here on out, everything is a battle. For one thing, Ma is not recording anything until she gets three bottles of Coca Cola: far from the prima donna that Irvin and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) make her out to be, she keeps a fierce grip on her upper hand, knowing that she won’t have it for ever (‘As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then.’) She insists that Sylvester, who has a terrible stutter, must do the voice intro on the track – meaning many a binned vinyl, and as many takes for him to get it right. Many. Levee and Dussie Mae catch eyes, and Ma clocks it. It’s not only Ma’s feathers Levee is ruffling, either. The unseasonable warmth, sweat, reefer smoke and rickety ceiling fans are all metaphor for a situation getting stickier by the minute.
At times, you can hear the sound of August Wilson's typewriter dinging. All the central characters are given a speech or two. It’s a risky move in cinema, where monologue must cross the barriers of both camera and screen to an audience accustomed to cuts. Nonetheless, the cast have presence. Particularly, Davis. Particularly Boseman, which makes it all the sadder and more astonishing to remember he is no longer with us.
There are moments in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that will likely come to seem prescient, perhaps even transcendent, knowing, as we do now, that Boseman was dealing with stage IV colon cancer while he was filming: the scene where Levee reveals a scar on his chest, the intensity with which he reveals this secret; or the moment when he rails against Cutler’s Christianity, staring up at the ceiling, daring God to strike him down. Of course, I know this is just ferociously good acting – still, in these moments, I experienced something like a brief ASMR-ish shiver.
The less I say about Ma Rainey’s explosive conclusion and stunning parting shot the better. Only to say that Ma is right to keep her guard up, she is right to be suspicious of the white men who want to take her ‘voice and trap it in them fancy boxes.’ They stand in for an entire industry that is about to appropriate black music for its own highly lucrative ends. Ma, at least, seems to know it, and how to work the system: ‘Ma don’t stand for no shit.’
By Sammi Gale