It is a reality that each of us brings to a movie our own particular experience, so that in a very real sense none of us see the same film as others.
I was particularly aware of this when watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently playing on Netflix. Just the mention of Ma Rainey’s name brought back a flood of memories of my undergraduate days at Oxford when many of us shared in what we termed “the traditional jazz revival.”
Spurred on by bands led by the likes of Humphrey Lyttleton and Chris Barber; Rex Harris’ informative Pelican guide to jazz; and the introduction of LP records that made it possible for us to listen to the records that to that time had only been available as rare and collectors’ items, we revelled in the jazz of the early Twenties. This was especially true for the blues as so memorably rendered by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Though we responded quite profoundly to the raw emotions of such music and attempted to understand the roots from which it sprang, in reality we had little idea of what the black experience really was. After all, even though several of my fellow undergrads and I were very much from the working class, we were listening from a position of white privilege.
In a very real sense I suppose that is true for many today and the very point that August Wilson was trying to make in his play on which the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based.
The film purports to tell the story of a recording session for which Ma Rainey has been booked by a white impresario. In the band accompanying her is an ambitious young trumpet player and composer, Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, who is determined to take the traditional music of blacks and develop it further.
This scenario enables Wilson to show the reasons for the anger experienced by black people then and now. Not only is their music taken and developed so it will appeal to white people while making white people rich in a kind of cultural appropriation, but the black artists are expected to perform and produce music on command in return for measly sums of money.
At the same time, the aspirations of black people, their attempts at attaining dignity and acceptance, and their wish to be recognized in their total humanity lead them to assert and express themselves any way they can – by parading their limited wealth in a show of extravagance, by emphasizing their simple human rights, and even sexually – above all through their music.
The film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom conveys all of this, though the film is not without its problems. Viewers must first be aware of the fact that it contains considerable mature content – there is quite explicit sexual content as well as frequent use of objectionable language. While this is almost inevitable given the film’s subject matter, it is something which many will not be willing to be exposed to.
At the same time, the fact that the film is based on a play is something which director George C. White and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have not been able to overcome cinematically. It is always hard to film action which takes place essentially in one closed place. Though, in this case, attempts are made to “open up” the action, they tend to be awkward and thus the film advances through a series of what are clearly scene divisions and stagey set pieces.
Despite the negatives that are part of the film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a great deal to recommend it. Its commentary on the black experience is powerful and, in these days of the Black Lives Matter movement, significantly relevant.
The impact of the film is made even greater because of the acting. In the title role, Viola Davis (almost unrecognizable in heavy make-up and fat body suit) delivers all the anger, frustration, and vulnerability of the black artist being used by white people, yet still trying to assert her own human worth.
Equally powerful is Boseman, sadly in his final role before his death and a shoe-in for a posthumous acting Oscar.
The supporting cast are also admirable and the costumes and setting suitably gritty and grungy despite the warmth of the sepia-toned colour palette, further conveying the essentially dark mood of the narrative.
Above all, of course, is the reminder of that amazing, moving, earthy music of the blues.
After watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I could accept no alternative but to bring out the CDs of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, and Jelly Roll Morton, returning to their soul-filled expression of suffering, determination, humiliation and hope.
I may still not be able fully to understand the black experience that tragically gave rise to the music and the film, but thanks to the racial tensions of the last year I am somewhat better able to understand and sympathize with the forces that underlie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and, even more importantly, the Black Lives Matter movement. That, I feel, is a good thing.