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In ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ the New Negro and the Old collide

A new production on Netflix shimmers with career-defining work from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey rolls into a steamy 1927 Chicago summer with a chip on her shoulder and a fur stole on her neck, both of which are instrumental to fully understanding her Black Bottom.

When she surveys her Midwestern digs in Netflix’s adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ma (Viola Davis) is unimpressed.

Surrounded by the city’s well-heeled, paper-bag-skinned, newly migrated Negroes, the Mother of the Blues is fully aware of all the ways she is less than respectable. But she and her entourage — her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and her shimmy-shakin’ road piece, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) — stroll through anyhow, en route to an afternoon recording session where Ma’s magic can be captured for profit and posterity. Stewing in their own perspiration as they await her arrival is Ma’s band: leader and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and the ambitious songwriting cornetist Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in the final role and best performance of his too-short career). They’ve come together in a basement rehearsal room in which weathered brick meets the well-worn shine of a wooden piano, the cotton and wool of hard-won suits and fedoras, and the smooth yellow of Levee’s newly purchased brogues.

Viola Davis (left) as Ma Rainey is seen here with director George C. Wolfe (center) and Chadwick Boseman (right), who played Levee.

David Lee/Netflix

Ma Rainey initially feels like a hangout play — here you are, dropped into this recording studio for an afternoon with a quartet of men shooting the breeze — but it’s more than that. The conflict within the show is the philosophical one at the heart of the Roaring ’20s Negro with a little money in his pocket and some pep in his step. Black people in 1927 Chicago are at a crossroads: ahead lay an unclear future, full of the promise of Alain Locke’s New Negro, the urbane metropolitan sophisticate who migrates North to a promised land of opportunity and even wealth. Behind is the degradation, rags, and mortal danger of Black life in the antebellum South.

A battle is festering between the avatars of those two Black Americas: Levee and Ma.

Ma, born in 1886 or 1882, depending on who you ask, doesn’t seem too impressed with the New Negro. She’s done just fine as an ambassador of the blues, taking her act to backwoods tents where folks line up to hand over their coins for the chance to see a gold-teeth grinning musical matriarch in a velvet dress hoochie-coochie her way in the spotlight. And then there’s Levee: young, scene-stealing, full of energy and promise, itching to make the jump from the jug band music of the agrarian South to the swing of Northern jazz. You can hear it in his voice, in his compositions (written by Branford Marsalis), in the way he pronounces “Harlem” as if the “r” is a mere suggestion.

The difference in their approaches comes to a head in the Chicago session, in which Levee lobbies for a chance to start his own band and record his own music. Ma is resolute in sticking with her past, so much so that she’s willing to steamroll over Levee’s arrangement of her hit, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” to allow stuttering Sylvester to record the spoken word introduction to the song, no matter how much vinyl gets wasted in the process. Toledo, the elder statesman of the band (Turman is 73), is a tragic figure, caught between North and South, Old Negro and New, who ultimately pays with his life for the disappointments and everyday injustices meted out by a whiteness that holds all the capital and most of the cards.

Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, doesn’t seem too impressed with the New Negro.

David Lee/Netflix

Each of the actors rises to the occasion in this production, riding a wave of heat crafted by screenwriter and Wilson whisperer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted the playwright’s words for the film. Director George C. Wolfe punctuates the polarities of Ma Rainey with an elegant subtlety, opening the film with two Black figures running through the Georgia woods as dogs bark in the background. When, during rehearsal, Levee recounts how, as an 8-year-old, he witnessed a mob of white men rape his mother in Jackson County, Mississippi (the punishment for the uppity nature of Levee’s father, who had saved to buy his own land and make his own money), Wolfe briefly aims the camera at Turman’s Toledo. His eyes bear a glint of mournful recognition. The moment is fleeting because that’s all it needs to be.

Ma shows up — late, of course — for the recording session dripping in the material objects of her success. A new car, the fur stole. A fan magically unfurls with the flick of a wrist when she gets too hot. Ma guzzles down a cold Coca-Cola and orders about the scared, needy white men in possession of the infrastructure that enables widespread distribution of her sound. Davis’ Ma Rainey is base, abject, dark, country, uncultivated, and full of don’t give a damn energy. She presides from the chairs of the recording studio as if they’re thrones — legs wider than the most insouciant manspreader, elbows resting on her knees, barking, authoritative, and full of resentment, the steaming, sweat-drenched, unadulterated id of Chicago’s Mama Morton as embodied by Queen Latifah, or Bessie’s Bessie Smith, as embodied … also by Queen Latifah. The excesses of Ma’s body spill forth from the 1920s uniform of female liberation, the flapper dress, curves high and low heaving with each heavy-footed step.

“They don’t care nuthin’ about me,” Ma offers as explanation for antics typically ascribed to diva-dom. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gon’ treat me how I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt ’em.”

The fault lines within Ma Rainey are accentuated by its costuming, designed by film veteran Ann Roth, who was also responsible for outfitting the cast of Doubt, a stage-to-film adaptation in which Davis was nominated for an Oscar. When Levee lunges at Toledo for creating an imperceptible smudge on his new marigold shoes, he’s really lunging at the boundaries imposed by the white men who own the recording studio he longs to use.

Wilson is one of two Black men who have ever won a Tony Award for playwrighting and Davis is no stranger to performing his work. She won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2017 for her teary-eyed, snot-dripping portrayal of Rose Lee Maxson in Denzel Washington’s 2016 film adaptation of Wilson’s Fences, a martyr on the altar of monogamy, standing by her man Troy and the outside child she raised as her own.

The possibilities of what lies ahead for Ma Rainey shimmers with as much glitter as its titular character’s ever-present jewelry: a best actress nomination (at least) for Davis, posthumous recognition for an underappreciated Boseman, plaudits for the marathon careers of Domingo and Turman.

This version of Ma Rainey arrives at a time of Negro Renaissance shaped and led, in large part, by folks Locke was subtweeting with his designation of “Old Negroes”: Southerners who were cultivated in the Black Bottom of America, reminders of a past steeped in racial terrorism. The vanguard comprises writers such as Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Sarah Broom, Tressie McMillan-Cottom, Natalie Baszile — people who have transmuted the blues into literature — along with singer-songwriters such as Brittany Howard and Rhiannon Giddens. They have soared to heights Levee could not — claiming a throne perched atop the curve of Gertrude’s Black, insistent bottom.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.