As my colleague Joe Reid recently wrote, if there was ever a year when Netflix was going to win big at the Oscars, this is it. Hollywood’s traditional studios have been sidelined by COVID, and the streaming giant has just put up its best slate of theatrical and documentary movies to date.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a spirited adaptation of August Wilson’s play about Black Americans and the blues, should be on every Oscar voter's short list. You just can’t take your eyes off Academy Award darlings Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, in his final role before succumbing to cancer this summer. As these two rivals spar over how a song should be played, it escalates into a high-stakes debate over how one remains authentically Black while operating in the white power structure.
As with all of August Wilson’s plays, it helps to know your history.
The Great Migration
If you’ve already watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, go back and watch the opening minute again. The camera darts through the woods at night. Dogs are barking, seemingly in pursuit. Suddenly two boys appear, running. Now we see a burning torch … and that’s when the ruse is revealed. The camera emerges from the thicket of trees to reveal Black people lining up outside a roadhouse. “Barnesville, Georgia, 1927,” a graphic states. No one is being chased. Instead, groups of rural Blacks are hurrying to get in line to see the latest performance of the country blues queen, Ma Rainey (Davis).
But the anxiety-creating open is there to make a point. From the end of the Civil War through the early 20th century, Southern Blacks lived under the uneasy watch of resentful whites, who used violence and intimidation to ensure that these ex-slaves would never exercise the rights to which they were entitled. Starting in the 1910s, Blacks in the South began to hear the siren song of the North. Industrialism was opening good-paying jobs in manufacturing and Northern cities bustled with a collective energy you couldn’t find in Barnesville, Georgia. For others, the romance of the American West, specifically California, beckoned.
Thus began The Great Migration, an exodus of some six million African-Americans out of the South in search of (quoting the title of Isabel Wilkerson’s fabulous account) the warmth of other suns. This migration happens right after the Georgia scene in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as a montage of newspaper headlines usher us into a vaudeville theater on Chicago’s State Street where Ma Rainey and her rival Levee (Boseman) are now playing to a house full of paying black customers.
“The Great Migration was a promise,” Viola Davis says in the documentary accompanying Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “If you went up north, you were going to find a better life.” But that promise was not kept. “Sundown towns” sprang up across the northern and western U.S., where Blacks were not welcome after sundown. And although white bosses in politics and business were happy to have Blacks working for them, they were no more interested in sharing their power than Southerners. And meanwhile, African-Americans faced racism in housing and education despite their numbers.
Was Ma Rainey a Real Person?
Yes, indeed. Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett — or “Ma” Rainey as a result of her marriage to Will “Pa” Rainey — was a true innovator in American music. Raised in Georgia, her singing career began in church before she moved into Black minstrel shows. Yes, I said Black minstrel shows. Minstrelsy did start out in the early 19th century with white performers in blackface, but within a couple of decades African-Americans had started to appropriate the form for their own entertainment. “Blacks were very active in the field of minstrelsy, and headlined their own shows,” says music and TV historian Tim Brooks. Those shows became so popular that white theater owners eventually relaxed their rules to let Black audiences use the seats normally reserved for whites.
In his book Lost Sounds, Brooks describes the complex and changing relationship between black artists and the (mostly) white recording industry of the time. This lively back-and-forth between white and Black musical styles in the early 20th century has been well known to musicologists for decades, and the first hour of Ken Burns’ Country Music captures it well. Rainey’s style has been described as a merging of minstrelsy and country music into what became called the blues.
Wilson was not a musicologist, and he had nine other plays to write. Instead, he used the story of Ma Rainey to make larger points about the power of dreaming to overcome even the most powerful forces of oppression in pre-civil rights America. This is beautifully expressed in a soliloquy at the poetic apex of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, seen here in a dramatic reading performed by Ebony Jo-Ann from the 2015 American Masters episode "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand":
“White folks don't understand the blues. They hear it come out but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking …. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning, you get up knowing you ain’t alone.” This is less Ken Burns than it is James Baldwin. It isn’t historically accurate to say white folks don’t get a musical form they helped create — but Rainey’s defiant stance in the play rings true to the Black experience.
Was Levee a Real Person?
The other major figure in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the tragic trumpeter Levee, a wholly invented character played by Boseman in an Oscar-worthy performance. Levee, who also fancies himself an arranger, has his own ideas about how Rainey’s band should lay down the recording of her signature piece, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” However, it will be up to Irvin and Sturdyvant, the two white men running the studio for Paramount Records, who have the last word on which version gets made.
Paramount Records was an early leader in “race records” — 78 rpm discs marketed to African-Americans mostly through mail order. Paramount was plagued by poor quality recordings, as we see in the inept recording session that makes up much of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ironically, the label run by hapless white men was in real life kept alive by a Black man, “Ink” Williams, who had a knack for pulling talent off the blues circuit and into the studio. The much better-run Okeh Records, which was bought by Columbia Records in 1926, soon knocked off Paramount to become the leader in race records, and later a pioneer in soul music.
August Wilson and Black History
August Wilson (1945-2005) is recognized as one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, but in 1982, when he wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he was a struggling artist in St. Paul who made ends meet as a science writer and a part-time cook. Wilson had conceived of an ambitious “Pittsburgh Cycle” of historical plays, one for each decade of the 20th century and inspired by his memories of growing up in the Steel City. The first one, Jitney, had already been given a premiere, but afterward Wilson threw that script in the rewrite drawer and didn’t come back to it for a decade.
Thus it was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — the only play not set in Pittsburgh — that actually got the Pittsburgh Cycle moving. Wilson continued to write these plays until his death at age 60. All were performed on Broadway, and one, Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, earned a revival in 2009 that drew wide notice when President and Mrs. Obama attended a performance.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix, alongside the documentary Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Legacy Brought to Screen.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.