Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The film is not a biopic of Ma Rainey – if such a thing were ever possible. There could be few musicians as complicated as her

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey (Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett) was billed by her record label, Paramount, as “The Mother of the Blues”. She remains (in recording terms at least) the link between the rural/country sound of the blues and the more urban/city sound characterised by artists such as her pupil Bessie Smith.

This new Netflix film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play of the same name. Whilst the main character of the story is Ma Rainey – played to perfection by Viola Davis – the film is about so much more. In fact, most of the drama takes place out of Ma Rainey’s presence and between her backing musicians – Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag – as they try to absorb and restrain the constant challenge and musical ambitions of Levee, the youngest band member, played by Chadwick Boseman. This was Boseman’s last film before dying of cancer in August 2020 and what a performance! Levee is a rough-cut diamond on the outside but a very vulnerable child on the inside and Boseman manages to combine these two elements exquisitely.

The film is not a biopic of Ma Rainey – if such a thing were ever possible. There could be few musicians as complicated as her. On the surface she was a powerful, charismatic, demanding and serious matriarch. She accepted nothing but strict adherence to her demands and would cancel a recording session just to prove she could. But this was her survival mechanism. She knew that because of her voice and popularity on stage she could exercise some small influence over a recording industry dominated by white males whose only motivation was profit. That industry cared nothing for Ma Rainey or any other black musician.

This was a time when sales of records had skyrocketed thanks to the Paramount Recording Company starting to record black jazz and blues musicians. Everyone wanted a phonograph and “for the first time, the rural black could hear his own voice singing in an accent, language and melody that were native to him about his own special concerns and problems” (Alan Lomax – The Land Where The Blues Began).

It didn’t take long, however, for other record companies to enter the “race” field and for unscrupulous managers and producers to make obscene demands on the naïve black artists who came to their attention. As Lomax so poignantly puts it, “Recording directors with one hand pocketed royalties that belonged to the singers; with the other they held out a pen, which the illiterate and often blind musicians touched with trembling hands, thereby assigning copyrights of their songs to these musical gangsters”.

The film is based on just one memorable recording session on a hot, steamy day in 1920s Chicago. The musicians arrive before Ma Rainey and head to the rehearsal room. Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag have seen it all before. They are the stereotypical session musicians – play what you are told and pick up the fee at the end. They know the unfairness of life as a black musician but have learned to run with the grain and not against it. Levee, on the other hand, is younger, ambitious and writes music. He knows he is a cut above these “jug-band” musicians and pulls no punches in telling them. Voices are raised and insights into personal tragedies revealed.

Back in the recording studio, Ma Rainey has arrived and is having her own power struggle with her manager and the studio. Whilst her demands for a fan and a bottle of coke appear infantile, she knows that this is a game in which weakness is punished. She may have arrived in a fancy car and wearing fancy clothes and jewellery, but she also knows that being black, she couldn’t even get a taxi home if she wanted to.

A day in the life of Ma Rainey is not sufficient to understand this artist in any meaningful way. She has always had the reputation of being a larger-than-life character, bisexual, demanding and even capable of violence. One description of her show (Louisiana Blackbirds) in 1927 describes her as “loaded with diamonds, in her ears, round her neck, in a tiara on her head. Both hands were full of rocks, too; her hair was wild and she had gold teeth. What a sight!” But other accounts describe her devotion to the Baptist church, her loyalty to her musicians and her “gentle personality that accepted taunts from her audience with good humour”.

The recording session ends with tragic consequences for some. But Ma Rainey survives and drives away to do battle (on her terms) for many more years to come. She retired back to her home in Columbus, Georgia in 1933 after a relatively long and successful career. Her musical legacy, however, is diminished by an abundance of poor-quality recordings made by Paramount which has made her position in the hierarchy of blues singers lower than it should be.

The music industry has clearly changed since the 1920s but not always for the better. Even in 2020 (a hundred years later than the setting for this film), an audit by one of the world’s largest record companies, BMG, found that black artists had significant disparities in the royalty rates, providing them with smaller payouts than non-black artists.

The film is a timely reminder (if one was needed) that black lives have always mattered and begs the question as to what might have been done by record producers and companies if they had truly cared about their artists, their traditions and had really wanted to help them.

If I have one small reservation with this film it is that Ma Rainey’s stereotype is enhanced rather than redefined. But don’t let this put you off. This is an accomplished film, respectful to Wilson’s original 1984 play, topical in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and superbly acted by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix film directed by George C. Wolfe, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and produced by Denzel Washington and Todd Black, with a score by Branford Marsalis. Released 18 December 2020 –