R for language, violence, and sexuality. It's all pretty darned intense. The language is throughout the film and often attached to comments about race. The sexuality, while devoid of nudity, is pretty graphic and visceral. The violence really comes out of left field and is pretty cold blooded. A lot of the movie is based on Levee's hot temper, which causes him to act irrationally on a moment's notice. It's R for a good reason.
DIRECTOR: George C. Wolfe
It's kind of a bummer that this is going to be the movie that's probably associated with Chadwick Boseman's last role. I have this thought that an actor's posthumous role tends to be kind of rough, but I suppose that isn't true here. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom might be the film that earns Boseman an Oscar. I had been meaning to read this play for years. I kind of dig August Wilson. I have never been completely overwhelmed by him, but I like Fences enough to sit down and read a collected works or something like that.
When writing about adapted plays, I can't help but think that I'm just writing about the play itself. Each interpretation of the same work kind of has its own vibe, but the script seems absolutely central. Yeah, I want to preach about the performances in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and I probably will, but that's only going to get me so far. Instead, I kind of want to look at some of the themes and motifs in the film. You can really get the vibe that this was a play. Like Casablanca, so much of the story takes place in the same locations. It's that long-form of storytelling where we don't jump from place to place in terms of setting. Rather, the story is a dance. The same dancers take turns in the spotlight, poking Levee the Tiger until he attacks. It's something that really emphasizes the power of the stage. Yeah, it totally works in this film, but I can imagine how much of a treat a stage director would get out of an experience like this.
It's interesting that the two largest characters in this movie are both deeply flawed individuals. Yeah, I get it. Storytelling should have flawed protagonists. Levee and Ma are both horrible human beings. But both of them, in their own ways, are right. I mean, there are a half dozen other characters who are more moral and more grounded than these two and don't deserve the crummy fate that has befallen them. But we don't really get attached to these characters. Sure, Cutler and Toledo are compelling, but they have very little in terms of goals for these ninety minutes. But Levee and Ma actively are trying to change the world around them. Really, the film comes down to an unstoppable force moving an immovable object. Levee, for all of his bravado and anger, is Ma. He is a musician through and through. This is a job for him, yes. He needs the money that this gig will offer. But he's about ensuring the importance of his music. He thinks that he will be able to change the world and he hates that Ma is repressing him for that action. The irony is that Ma is in the same boat. She's annoying and caustic. Her drama seems to be put on to annoy others. But she's fundamentally about her own music.
But the important thing is that both of their choices come down to race and how Black people have been treated in America. From Levee's perspective, it is about seizing any moment that the white man has to offer. He knows that Black men don't have many opportunities handed to them. They have to have this combination of luck and skill. When Levee finds out that Sturdyvant wants some of his music, music that he truly believes in, he's right to strike while the iron is hot. He finds that flaw in Ma to cling to the old ways of isolationism with her people. He knows to reach the most amount of people, he needs to use the white man for his own good. The tragedy of the situation is that the white man, for all his charity, is really out for himself. I have to say, I was caught off-guard when the all white audience was singing "Jelly Roll" at the end. It makes me think of the success of Elvis Presley and why people get annoyed for his success.
Ma, however, is also right, despite being on the opposite side of the debate. It's easy to dislike Ma. She's such a punk through the film. She is everything that is involved with being a diva. She makes people miserable. She only cares about herself. She has these unreasonable demands. But from her perspective, she sees that she is being used to make the white man a buck. She is making a record reluctantly. I know that the rest of the world would be leaping at the chance for the success that Ma sees in this film, but that's not the success she wants. She has her audience and she loves her audience. The new audience is simply a dilution of her brand and her music. Working with these white misers, for all their smiles and kowtowing, is an insult to who she is. Yeah, she's mean. But she's mean because she knows what it means to go in with a smile.
I am still breaking down the death of Toledo. Toledo is the most likable character in the story. He's this nice old man who has regrets about his youth. He teases Levee, but no more so than any of the other characters in the film. Instead, he's the victim of Levee's breakdown. It is the culmination of Toledo stepping on his shoes. I love how that shot shows the shoes perfectly fine. We keep getting shown these yellow shoes as if they have been marred and obliterated, but they look great. I know that there is shoe culture and I don't think that this is that. Instead, Toledo is executed for nothing. The story builds and builds to it being a showdown between Levee and Cutler, but the turn happens to Toledo.
I'm really trying to pick this apart. Perhaps there's something there going on when it comes to Levee's courage. Levee is the first person to start a fight. After all, he did go after Cutler with a knife earlier in the story. But Levee's key personality trait is his braggadocia. It's how he seduces Ma's girlfriend. It's why he's so loud in the room. It's why he absolutely believes that he will be more successful than Ma. It's why he tries changing around Ma's arrangement. But I think that Levee is always afraid of failing because he has always actually failed. In a fight with Cutler, he might actually lose. Culter is large and confident. Toledo is old and withdrawn. And it's in that moment where Levee snaps that Toledo is cut down. There's this gorgeous moment of regret and awareness that passes through Levee and that's the moment where we see that he's just this kid who has no idea how make the world work for him.
I adored Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Yeah, it's never going to be one of my favorite plays. But this is a story that allows actors to be actors. It's deep and resonant. It hurts to watch for a lot of it and that's totally worth the hour-and-a-half runtime that Netflix rolled out. I weep for the family and friends of Chadwick Boseman. But keeping that in mind, it is a heck of a piece to go out on.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.