Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, an explorative piece about Black masculinity

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“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” released on Netflix on December 18, 2020, and is a film adaptation of world renowned playwright August Wilson’s play that opened on Broadway in 1984 to the same title.

The film stars Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee, and Colman Domingo as Cutler.

The story takes place in a Chicago recording studio where Rainey and her band will record an album headlined by Rainey. Prior to her arrival, Levee buys a new pair of shoes, members of the band share stories, trade jokes, and Levee talks about how he is going to form his own band.

When he and the other members of the band are rehearsing before the recording session, there is much dialogue surrounding which arrangement of the title song they are going to use. Levee’s or Ma’s.

Once Rainey arrives, she is notoriously late and takes control of how the songs are performed, the order in which the songs will be recorded, and who gets featured on which song. She even has her nephew Sylvester, who has a stutter, open the title song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which delays the recording session even more because of his ailment.

After the recording session is finished, Levee talks to Sturdyvant to sell him his songs, as well as have his own recording session in the Chicago studio. Sturdyvant agrees to buy the songs from him for $5 a song, but goes back on his promise to allow Levee the opportunity to record the songs he wrote.

The reneging of Sturdyvant’s promise in allowing Levee to record his own songs, in addition to the ruining of his new shoes serve as a catalyst for a fatal ending to one of the characters in the film’s final moments.

While viewing the film, I couldn’t help but to notice how a majority of the story is not as centered around Ma Rainey as the previews had initially perceived it. If anything, the story is centered on Levee and how he has to navigate through a world cloaked in various forms of masculinity.

These forms of masculinity are mainly coded in racism and misogyny.

Levee, the young and vibrant trumpeter, seems to have everything going for him. He gets a new pair of shoes, he is talking to the studio manager to have an opportunity to record his own music, and he is told that his arrangement of the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is going to be featured on the project.

Each one of these opportunities presented to Levee falters. His new shoes get ruined, Sturdyvant capitalizes off of his music without giving him the proper recognition, and Rainey is the one who ends up calling the shots on how the songs get performed.

The moment that masterfully allows us to tap into this never ending internal battle between Levee and masculinity, is his monologue where he tells the story of seeing his mother being sexually assaulted by a group of racist white men in his own home early in his life.

After Levee gives this powerful monologue, we see why moments like someone stepping on his new shoes, promises that end up getting broken, and having his voice constantly being minimized has a major impact on him at the end of the story.

This build up is the perfect example of how multiple forms of oppression Black people face both internally and externally at the hands of masculinity can overwhelm and cause you to go past your breaking point.

Levee is not the only character who has to deal with these never ending tropes. Ma Rainey also deals with this tedious navigation.

Rainey, who has made a name for herself as a blues singer during this time, is a plus-sized, dark-skinned, Black lesbian woman whose identities meet at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. The only way she has made a name for herself is through her music, but even her immaculate stage presence and captivating voice can not stop the lasting impact.

As she deals with these multiple identities, masculinity is at the forefront of each and every facet of her life.

She is a Black woman constantly occupying a space controlled by both white and Black men. While it is not explicitly addressed, her queer identity is ridiculed by a large group of Black folks. And she is the only one who believes that her nephew can get a successful recording of the title song intro despite his speech ailment.

These instances are controlled by masculinity and patriarchy that Rainey intentionally dismantles simply by existing as who she is.

One thing I thoroughly enjoy about plays penned by August Wilson is his ability to keep the conversation going after you leave the theater. Wilson forces the dialogue to continue to further explore different themes and messages through his storytelling, which has had a lasting impact on Black folks.

Wilson does this in a way that is not over the top to allow access for the dialogue to tell an authentic story regarding the Black experience.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle that tells the story of the African American experience throughout the 20th century and is available to stream now on Netflix.

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