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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

10 Feb

Metamorphosis Zero
by
Bruce Moody
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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Movie. Tragedy. Color 94 minutes. 2020.

The place is a beat-up recording studio in the South Side Of Chicago. The time is 1927. Four musicians gather to record a song by Blues Diva, Ma Rainey — who is met by a hothead young trumpet player with his own dreams of song.

By now, all of us, I hope, have heard of August Wilson’s plays of Black life, one for each decade of the last century, plays that enter into ordinary Black folks at their work, their homes, their everyday truck. But a play a decade is not the feat. The feat is the excellence of the plays, their latitude, their depth. Their rash stories. Their beautiful language. Their funny language, also beautiful. What bounty!

It’s hard to see that Viola Davis is miscast, for she plays Ma Rainey with all she’s got. If the part requires an actress of temperament, and if all she’s got is not quite sufficient to garner the electrical meanness and sexual sovereignty of Ma Rainey, still Viola Davis’s investment in the role has lots of carrying power.

For the writing has even more carrying power. The writing carries the actor. And all the actors. And they know it.

For August Wilson wrote beautifully and greatly. And the film honors that truth.

One difficulty with the film is the presentation of it.

It is presented as though the power of the material lies in individual performances of it rather than in the story of its ensemble. The tension that rays between characters is left out — and also the lack of tension between characters, particularly that minus-tension within the band members, whose game is to quietly wait out workplace conflicts in aid of the work itself, in the playing and completion of which their satisfaction and livelihoods reside.

Instead the material is delivered as a series of close-ups of such importance that narrative attention is leached from the group leading their lives in disrespectful rooms together, although together there is where they are most of the time. The spectacle of whole bodies in response to other whole bodies is lost. It is the loss of the true subject of Wilson’s work — the impotence of human beings to live their souls out loud, free and before us, rather than squeezed out as performers of sport or song or crime. The story is not about an individual. The story is about humans, Black and White, banded together to record a song — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. That is to say, the play is about the group gathered in expression of its title.

The play is about expression.

The movie — as the play does not — begins with exposition scenes to establish Ma Rainey’s position before the recording session’s date. These scenes are fun and well done. But, as in the play, it is best that we have never heard of Ma Rainey — the real point being that Ma Rainey’s life and song fell into obscurity after her death.

The reason for this obscurity may have been that Ma Rainey was a singer of dirty blues — broader in their vulgarity than Mae West, but in a congruent vein — maybe hard to find sponsors willing to immortalize such raw stuff? In death Ma Rainey was less than marginal. In life, she certainly was marginal — singer of risqué ditties, musician, Black, fat, middle-aged, lesbian, and female. In life, her fight was to establish her own margins and to steamroller all who objected to them. It took everything she had.

A performing singer already somewhat popular in person and on records, she nonetheless has to battle every inch of the way for the money, setting, and Coca-Cola necessary for the ambience in which to perform. She must pave by hand and lip and hip every inch of her way every time she draws breath to sing. Nevertheless, she holds the gold in the everyone’s purse by her voice. Without her, zero. So, just to make sure they know it, she’ll make everyone bow before her, even those already ready to.

Into her commercial enterprise interlopes a newcomer with ambitions of his own.

Does he have a chance for success?

If he does have a chance for success, is all that awaits him the hard-nosed fame of Ma Rainey?
Looks like it.

Or, if he doesn’t have a chance for success, is it only because he doesn’t dare take a stab at it?

Or is there another element in play to steer his chance?

Justice carries a big knife. That much we know beforehand. Justice is also blind, so we do not know the outcome, we do not know what will be tossed into Justice’s scales. This suspense carries us through the unfolding of the story.

This story is not something presented as taking place long ago in a dim, drab room. Instead, such a lost time, as the ‘20s, allows the projection of a 2021 state of mind onto it. For while the tension is the question: what will The Gods make of this? — the conflict is not between this singer and this trumpeter. Because the conflict is not a conflict. It is a battle. The battle is over The Field Of Possibility itself. The situation is huge.

Good.

For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was meant for big theaters, made big by and for theaters. Not by close-ups can it be made into a chamber piece — even though it is entirely confined to the chamber of our parlor in this Netflix TV expression of it. But it is the actors themselves who redeem its size. They cannot help but rise to the occasion. And the occasion is the words.

The tough thing for an adapter of Wilson’s work to film is: what is the point if you water down the words?

This is true of adapting any fine playwright. You want to hold onto the way the playwright said a thing and what they said. It’s different with novels. Cry The Belovèd Country you can adapt to a film for Canada Lee as you may because it is not originally a play written for a crowd of eyes raised together in many chairs, but a novel for two eyes lowered alone in one chair.

For, technically, Wilson’s work is like Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare wrote in a style to be heard without microphones under the open sky at The Globe, a thousand at a performance. He used the manner of certain words for that. And Wilson’s words arise from the same rubric that necessitates words for vocal bigness — and in the need for characters from time to time to take the stage. The film honors this.

Yet one reads that the actors’ performances are over-played. They are not, really. They are simply stage performances, and they are so because the material was written for the stage where a declarative acting style inheres and is necessary for realization there.

Then how do you make a film of this material?

How do you write it to the scale of cinema acting? If there is such a thing.

How do you make it “intimate”? If such a thing is desirable.

You don’t.

One way is to think you can make plays intimate with close-ups. But with this material, closeups don’t bring the audience closer. They swamp intimacy. Closeups here make faces appear intruded upon and flattened. For, indeed, the idiosyncrasy, the clarity, the valor of what Black folk say takes the form of a diction and delivery already big — and certainly big in the gathering of a professional setting, which this setting is. And you don‘t need closeups if largeness of utterance is a necessary habit of Black folks to begin with — if Black words are already bound to be Theatrical. Final. Emphatic.

If, to get their point across, no Black person is mealy-mouthed anyhow. If each one knows how to claim his joke. How to snap to. How to grumble plainly. It’s The Offense Of The Defense. Keeps your body integrated with your soul. Even that taciturn character, the bassist, keeps his counsel in a plain way. For eloquence size is older than old. It is a tribal virtue — without its strength one’s survival becomes flimsy there and one’s humanity imperiled. These two styles, the theatrical and the natural, already big, do not need the emphasis of closeups to vividly live.

One critique says Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a Melodrama.

What does that mean?

Does it mean that Ma Rainey is not a satire — which is the other side of the coin of melodrama, as in Dickens?

Or does calling it Melodrama mean that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not a Tragedy?

What does the term Melodrama mean?

It means that the audience is elbowed, by bodyguards of musical accompaniment or raked diction or both, towards a certain emotional ride. This technique seals the audience against change, or, at least all change is dictated. Melodrama tells us where to go and to go nowhere else. In Melodrama, things either end badly or end well. But they do not go on beyond the ending. In tragedy they do. And why is that?

Because Tragedy opens up its audience to an heretofore unexpected metamorphosis.Tragedy shoves those who watch an inch forward — not just on subway home but always.

An inch forward into what?

And beyond what? What has been outdistanced, left behind? What has died out that this metamorphosis may live?

Does melodrama do this?

Not for a minute. For, if this is melodrama, one asks, what music enamels its scenes? If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is melodrama, why is melody here either central or mute — always the solo insider or always an absent outsider? The words of this play do not Circe us into an emotional corridor. We hear the title song. It is good, comic, low-down stuff. It’s not an accompaniment. It’s not a score. It is an annunciation! And it is an annunciation about the truth of the fib that lies behind the blues. But the movie’s means to its truth is not choral. Its means is drama.

And its drama is about the fib of the way Black folks talk to white folks. Every black person in America knows how to translate this fib and to switch into it. The skillful fib protects. It hides an exquisite resentment. Its argot becomes everyday Ebonics, a word-mask, a neon code.

What has the Blues to do with this fib?

For the Blues comes to life from the need to at once declare and rebel against the need for the fib — to disqualify the fib by the flat-out recalcitrance of Black bands, songs, and singers. (A lie upon a lie. The need for the fib remains undeniable.)

The Blues rebuffs the deviousness needed for expression in the White world. (A lie upon a lie. A lie is required. The truth will not set you free.)

The Blues in its iterant and insistent form releases one from the need to lie at the same time as it cannot but include the humor and agony of that need. (A lie upon a lie. What a charming habit! One can hardly let it go.)

The blues releases the elan conserved behind that lie. The Blues is always private. (Always a lie about a lie.) And black folks know it’s a lie, know the necessity that that lie’s truth must take the form of the Black humor of a song. Black folks are not fooled by themselves in this. They know all about it. If August Wilson knows it, everybody does. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom dramatizes what everybody else already knows. It is therefore extremely painful.

One also reads of the wish to exclude Levee’s big aria on the grounds that the monologue sounds made-up.

If it does sound made-up, who is making it up? Levee who enunciates it? Or Wilson who wrote it?

If Wilson, then “made-up” means that Wilson is preaching out of church. He’s dragging something in. Something that doesn’t belong. Something garish. Phony. “Made-up.”

If Levee has made-up the speech, then “made-up” means that the speech is phony in a different way.

If that’s the case, Levee’s speech is how Levee made-up his boast that he knows how to talk to White folks.

But Levee’s mind works on lies. Levee expresses himself in lies. Fibs are his style — like his fancy shoes. The monologue shows that Levee “makes up” things because it’s all there is left for him to do.

His fib is the limitation leveed by Blacks on themselves to safeguard their essence. How Levee makes up justifications for it is how we all make up justifications. We all do the same. But it’s different for white people.

The Levee monologue diagrams how Black folk concoct prevarications for the survival of their very flesh — with tongue-in-cheek pride and a smiling chaser for the shame for having to. Their lives are at stake. How is such dissimulation given birth? The monologue details the obstetrics. The monologue reveals Levee’s relations to his own survival. It digs out the heart of him, just as “To be or not to be” does in another play. Save that Levee lies about it, because the truth is that, while he boasts he has a black belt in survival, he has nothing.

In ‘To be or not to be” a man refuses to lie to himself, then lies to himself, then realizes that he has lied to himself. In his monologue, Levee tells the truth, but lies to himself about it, and doesn’t realize that he lies to himself.

The true example his father set in dealing with Whites’ insults was to hide the slow fuse of the patience he took to mete out revenge for it. Patience is a quality of which Levee possess not an ounce. His father smiled at the White men, but behind that smile hid cunning and perseverance, which Levee possesses nothing of also. Levee boasts he got from his father a way to trick White folks, but all he has is words. And words which he plays as his strong suit are actually his only suit and are therefore his weak suit. His words are boasts, fibs, alibis, lies, and lies about talk. He learned nothing from his father. To Whites his father said nothing.

Is it impossible for Black folks to be straightforward?

Is that the subject of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Is its tragedy the impossibility of straightforward expression?

And expression of what? There’s lots of “expression” going on in Ma Rainey— so what sort of expression?

Levee’s agony to get his song recorded and paid for is not about the song, but that his dignity is attached to the song. Levee has all sorts of expression, all sorts of song. He plays his trumpet like gee whiz and — like all Levee’s expression — always out of place. For Levee has no idea his problem is expression. He thinks his expression is perfect, for, while his expression is all lies, he believes every one of them.

Levee’s character, for him, is about dignity — inside a play about expression.

Truth of expression being dark to him, all he has to shoot for is dignity — dignity, a level lower than truth but with a seductive value to the ego.

Plus the value of the need to feed and clothe oneself paid properly for work done. Ma Rainey has become a monster to secure this, her trade. She fights every fight for it as a fight to the death. The same fight awaits Levee. Can he mount it? For, since, like Ma Rainey, the struggle is for money for value delivered, Levee again is like Ma Rainey.

And Levee is also like Ma Rainey in that he is volatile. He is not one of the quiet ones who can wait things out. To be wallflower dynamite like his father is not in the cards for him.

But all Ma Rainey has to do is out-strategize a dumb male record producer. She can beat him because a male is not in competition with Ma Rainey. Besides, White supremacists are not opposed to Black females — only Black males. So Levee is up against a bigger opponent than Ma Rainey.

Is the winning of dignity enough for Levee?

If it is, then loss of it will be disastrous.

Levee is already 32 and hasn’t gone far. So, if Levee is a man who blows his own trumpet at the wrong time, when is the right time for him? When is his chance? He wants an opening as a composer and for the use of his music to be paid for fairly — right now. And why not?

But how does that fit with the law of Jim Crow? And what is that law? You never quite know, do you? Crow is capricious. For this law’s seizing constant is that it is administered at the whim of Mr. J. Crow, Esquire. Which is to say that Levee’s appeal to the record producer to get his song recorded and paid for may forbid or may allow justice to be met — if the record producer, just then, sees fit to forbid it or allow it. So, be erratic in the matter, Jimmy Crow, if you feel like it. There is Levee with hope on his face.

Do closeups make the actor appear to overplay that hope?

It’s not Chadwick Boseman who overplays the role. It’s the direction that overplays Chadwick Boseman.

To play Levee, Boseman simply tunes his performance to the max — which is what Wilson’s words require. Boseman is right. He doesn’t lose an inch. But the closeups on that broad just measure leave the audience with nothing to do — except to watch Boseman make no mistakes — leave the audience with nothing but to watch Boseman’s face made huge, with such closeups as blind us to Boseman’s whole body. When in Tragedy to see the whole body is everything!

Chadwick Boseman’s performance would be flabbergastering to see on the stage. Here, Boseman’s performance, great as it is, can ask nothing for us. It is unflinching, but we can barely absorb its truth because the direction forces it down our throats. So what we have, through no fault of the actor, is not a character we can enter, but a story the actor leaves behind almost as a relic — A Story In Which Levee Plays A Certain Role.

What is the metamorphosis?

A metamorphosis changes one, but it does so permanently. Unlike change, metamorphosis never changes back. One is always a nightingale. One is eternally laurel. For to metamorphosize is to change into one’s true being. Or into one’s true gift. Or into one’s true reward. Zero, forever.

Is what awaits us beyond the end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that one lives, then and forever, one step closer to justice for all creatures?

Why did August Wilson write a play for every decade?

He wrote for all of us to see all of this together, to see it all, so we would know.

Denzel Washington has contracted to bring all August Wilson’s plays to the screen — he brought us Fences and this — an endeavor worth the attention of all — an audience of all.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is stunning to see on the stage, stunning to witness laid out before us, as we the living watch the living enact it.

And it’s stunning to see it here in this film.

So see this movie on Netflix or anywhere you can. Don’t miss out on yourself.

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