Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which represents the late “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman’s final cinematic performance, is a deft celebration of the blues that showcases the grandeur and travails of creating art as an expression of dignity in a world scarred by Jim Crow segregation.
The film adaptation of legendary Black playwright August Wilson’s play, which premiered on Netflix Friday, was inspired by the historical Ma Rainey – known as the “Mother of the Blues” – and transports contemporary viewers to the Chicago of 1927.
The film takes us back to an early 20th century moment filled with racial violence, the resurgence of White supremacy, and the promise and pitfalls of White allyship in service of amplifying Black voices. It’s presented in a manner that bears striking resemblance to our fraught yet hopeful present.
The film’s period flavor, punctuated by a generous sampling of the blues that made Rainey famous, retains a contemporary resonance in its depiction of the casual nature of racial injustice. Set in a racially segregated Chicago (whose Black population swelled as African Americans fled racial oppression in the South in pursuit of freedom dreams in far flung cities across the North, Midwest, and West Coast) “Ma Rainey“‘s depiction of the struggle for racial dignity on America will strike modern audiences as frighteningly relevant to the present day.
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman’s performances especially resonate for their effortless ability to breathe contemporary life into historical figures usually encased in amber. Davis’ Rainey, in a towering inferno of a performance, is a transgressive figure born ahead of her time. Her queerness goes beyond her sexuality to define a woman whose artistic independence, love for other women and intelligence put her beyond the boundaries of the Black bourgeoisie’s respectability politics and the White strictures of Jim Crow.
The heart of the film is Boseman’s raw, emotionally powerful and resonant portrayal of a brilliant and volatile musician whose efforts to wear the mask of servitude in front of White folks hide a simmering rage that boils over in unpredictable ways. Boseman’s Levee struggles to balance that anger with the beating heart of a Black artist whose scars threaten to consume him. His swaggering presentation of an archetypal jazz era Black masculinity contains barely hidden layers of vulnerability poised to shatter his carefully cultivated public image as the recklessly dashing insouciant.
Each of Ma Rainey’s band members, from the youthful Levee to the diplomatic Cutler (Colman Domingo), and the veterans Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) has been traumatized by racial degradation. Yet they all retain a dignity in the face of abuse from law enforcement, White citizens and institutions that fail to recognize them as fellow citizens and human beings.
For all of Rainey’s fame and relative economic security, she remains an outsider to the patrons of the elite Negro hotel at which she stays in Chicago and the White record executives who are enriching themselves from her musical genius while giving her pennies on the dollar.
After band members tease him over his obsequious effort to convince one of Ma Rainey’s White powerbrokers to publish his song, cornet player Levee bares to them the physical and psychological childhood scars left by his mother’s gang rape by White men in the Jim Crow Mississippi of his boyhood. In a monologue that serves as a pinnacle of an extraordinary acting career prematurely ended by cancer earlier this year, Boseman recounts in granular detail the racial trauma that he carries with him daily. As his bandmates listen in stunned silence, Levee tries to make sense out of the senseless assault on his mother and his father’s subsequent death while seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Levee’s musical ambitions – he longs to forge a more progressive sound anticipating jazz’s great musical leaps beyond the kind of more traditional blues Rainey specializes in – places him at odds with Ma and the rest of the band.
In addition to his desires to innovate, Levee also embodies an ostentatious masculinity visible within the Black community of the era dressing as a dandy in a relentless pursuit of romantic interludes that serve as temporary distractions from the pain of the 8-year-old boy who witnessed him mother’s rape. He rages, in an extensive dialogue with Cutler, against God, Ma Rainey, and the entire band in hapless frustration over his – and by extension the Black community’s – inability to save his mother and father.
What makes “Ma Rainey” excel as a film experience is the care it takes in showcasing both the intellectual armor and emotional vulnerability deployed by each character, none more than Boseman’s Levee.
The film serves as a tone-poem to a now forgotten era that is more uncomfortably similar to our own than many would like to remember or admit. The racism of law enforcement against Black folk, the inability to freely walk down city streets without garnering disapproving stares and the humiliation of having to leave a store before being refused service all have contemporary – as well as historic – corollaries.
Black artists being cheated out of royalties while simultaneously praised by music industry executives is an age-old injustice that “Ma Rainey” imbues with new vitality. Ma Rainey is not the only person being exploited for the benefit of others. Her band members, each in their own excruciating way, chafe against the humiliation of being unable to cash a check for honest work due to racial discrimination. Their destinies are linked together by the simple fact of Blackness.
It’s a credit to the actors and director George C. Wolfe that, despite the hardships faced, large parts of the film revel in Black joy. Unleashed by Ma Rainey’s powerful blues and for long stretches unfettered by the constraints of racial segregation. The film shows, in subtle and explicit ways, the soul killing impact of systemic racism on Black communities during the roaring 1920s in ways that echo challenges still faced in the present.
Up until the final act, we are still rooting for Levee, the flawed anti-hero who despite his shortcomings, might still find a state of grace. Boseman expertly deploys his quick smile, handsome face, and wounded eyes to depict a young man teetering on the edge between ruin and redemption.
By the film’s end we discover that Levee’s personal tragedy serves as a window onto a past that illustrates the collective pain that helped to fuel the blues and jazz music that would shape postwar American democracy. The gutbucket blues sound that thrilled audiences in the 1920s and 1930s also helped create uniquely American music that would transform global popular culture. That transformation is rooted in the searing trauma of racial injustice .
The casual racial inequality that contours “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” remains, almost a century later, an integral part of American society. Black creative genius too often remains in the thrall of a music business dominated by White executives who benefit from the art at the expense of the artists. The film’s final scene is a performance of racial theft: White artists recording anglicized versions of the blues for popular audiences. The Black songwriters are erased from a history they helped to manifest with their blood, sweat, tears, and trauma.
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By offering a rich prelude to this final scene of cultural and racial co-optation, the film serves as a kind of artistic reckoning that resonates deeply in the age of Black Lives Matter, where institutions that have long benefited from racial exploitation – from sports to politics to culture and entertainment – are attempting to embrace a more inclusive future by squarely confronting their past. “Ma Rainey” does this with an unusual amount of courage, grace and empathy that offer the kind of hope that might change hearts, minds and the future.