“This be an empty world without the blues.”
So says Ma Rainey, and she’d know. The blues flow through her veins like the Mississippi through its banks. The blues give you a reason to get up in the morning, she says. They keep you company. The blues fill up your empty corners and keep the shadows at bay. They’re honest, earthy, real.
Can’t say the same for much else in this life.
Ma knows that, too. The so-called “Mother of the Blues” is a star, her fingers bangled with baubles, her teeth reinforced with gold. But she knows the only thing she owns worth a hoot is her voice. Without it, nary a soul in the world would care about her—certainly not her agent or those white record execs that beg her to record a song now and then. Once they stamp that voice on a record and wrap it up, they’re done with her.
Suits her just fine, though. She’s using them, too. In 1927, a black woman with power was as rare as a Georgia snow. And Ma’s not gonna let go of that power if she can help it.
She’s in Chicago now to record another record. The heat steams from the streets, and the studio’s as hot as a kiln. She walks in late, of course, like she owns the place. And maybe in a way, she does.
But underneath her feet, a storm’s a brewing. Levee, Ma’s young, brash and wildly talented trumpet player, has convinced the record execs to sub out Ma’s traditional arrangement of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with his own faster, jazzier take.
Band leader Cutler thinks it’s a small-scale insurrection. Who does Levee think he is? “It’s not what you say or Mr. Irvin (Ma’s manager) say,” he tells Levee. “It’s what Ma say that count.”
But Levee’s not so sure. His arrangement is good. It’s what people want—not Ma’s old, tired version. Besides, Ma may be the name, but Levee knows that folks who sign the checks call the shots.
The temperature keeps rising. Tempers climb in time with the mercury. And if everyone’s not careful, something just might blow.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a study in tension: Between youth and tradition, between white and black, between those who have power and those who want it. And really, the characters you gravitate toward—those you think are doing the right thing—might be as much an illustration of your values and inclinations.
For instance, is Ma just a demanding diva, or is she rightly standing up to people who want to take advantage of her? Is Levee a preening jerk, or is he someone who’s suffered mightily and just wants his real talents rewarded? The film sinks into its complex characters, putting flesh on the personal and societal issues that made them the people they were. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t about crowning heroes or villains: It has bigger quarry in mind.
But for my money, Ma’s band leader Cutler has his moments. He and Levee clash plenty—and sometimes violently. But when Ma’s ready to fire the kid, Cutler gently stands up for him.
Meanwhile, Toledo—the band’s pianist and oldest member—sometimes offers good advice (even when no one asks for it). And he’s deeply concerned with trying to influence the country’s deeply embedded racism. “There’s got to be more to life than just having a good time,” he scolds.
Early in the film, Slow Drag—the band’s bassist—says that he knew a man who sold his soul to the devil. He always dressed in fine clothes and had a “string of women” who ran with him. When he was called up on a murder charge, the judge acquitted him and gave the guy a bottle of whiskey, too. The story is met with a bit of skepticism by the band, but Levee says that he’d happily sell his soul to the devil and even sign up others. “God don’t mean nothing to me,” he says.
The story, and Levee’s reaction to it, sets up a whole bunch of elements that, while they’re heavy on spoilers, we’ll have to deal with in the following three paragraphs.
Later, Cutler—perhaps the band’s most pious member—offers his own religious story. A pastor, he says, got stuck in a tiny town and was harassed by a gang of white townsfolk. The gun-toting men told him to dance. When the pastor started to dance, they ripped the cross hanging around his neck and tore up the Bible he carried, telling him that dancing was blasphemous. Cutler’s about to go on with the story, but he’s interrupted by Levee.
“What I wants to know is, [if] he was a man of God, where the h— was God when all this was going on? Why didn’t God strike down them crackers with some of his lightning you talking about to me?”
Levee then dives into his own theological opinions: that God hates black people. He takes their prayers and “throw them in the garbage.” When Levee says that “God can kiss my a–,” Cutler attacks him. And after the two are pulled apart, Levee tells part of a heartbreaking story about a desperate prayer that went unanswered. He calls God “Cutler’s God,” threatening both Cutler and the Almighty with a knife. “Come on and save this n—er and strike me down!” he shouts. “Come on and save him like you did my mama!” He screams profanities at God and tells Him, “I’ll cut your heart out!”
Cutler tells Levee that he’s going to hell. Levee jokes that his trumpeting is so good that he should be named Gabriel (after, of course, the horn-blowing angel).
People make references to prayer. Toledo says he lost his wife to a church: When she saw all the “good, Christian men” in it, she wondered why Toledo wasn’t more like that. After making her agent and the head of a record studio mad, she says that they’re probably calling her “everything but a child of God.” Someone says Toledo has “more thoughts than the devil got sinners.”
Ma Rainey is either lesbian or bisexual (the historical Ma Rainey’s sexual identity is more in question), and another woman is part of her entourage. The woman—Dussie May—often sways sultrily to the sound of music. Ma comes up behind her during one of her dances and wraps her arms around Dussie May’s middle, holding her low on the abdomen and kissing her neck.
Dussie May’s not particular about her lovers, though. Levee also has eyes on her, often leering at her while he plays the trumpet. Ma notices his interest and doesn’t like it one little bit, and the rest of the band warns Levee to stay away from Ma’s “girl.” But during a break, Levee essentially seduces Dussie May in the band room, finally leading to the woman straddling Levee as they make out and begin to have sex on the piano. We see a great deal of Dussie May’s legs (including garters and underwear) and hear some lewd comments and conversation before the two are interrupted.
Many of Ma Rainey’s blues songs have an underlying but not explicitly stated sexual connotation (including, as you might expect, her signature song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). During a live performance, we see her slowly squat suggestively as her dancers—scantily clad women—gyrate around her.
Ma’s outfit exposes quite a bit of cleavage, too. She says that her business partners, once they get what they want from her, will treat her like “some whore, and they roll over and put their pants on” and leave.
We hear about a girlie show, with the speaker using a crass name for women’s breasts to describe it. There’s a verbal reference to someone visiting a “whorehouse.”
A man is stabbed to death. Levee threatens people with a knife. Cutler punches Levee.
Levee says that his mother was raped by eight or nine men, all of whom barged into their house after his father left for the day. He tried to stop them by cutting the throat of one man, he says, but they cut him open instead, and he shows the huge, grotesque scar the attackers left on his chest. (He says that the only thing that stopped the men’s attack on his mother was their fear that he might bleed to death.) Levee says that his father slowly got his revenge on at least four of the attackers “before they got him,” suggesting that Levee’s father was killed.
We hear about some other violent incidents. Ma’s involved in a ruckus outside the recording studio: Someone accuses her of pushing someone down. Ma says the guy just fell, “flopping like a rag doll.”
The f-word is used six times—all of them, I think, paired with the word “mother” and all directed at God. We hear the s-word more than 20 times.
But the most common vulgarity here is the n-word, which we hear nearly 40 times (both as a slur and as a term of familiarity). We hear the racially charged descriptor “cracker” several times, too.
Also on the docket: “a–,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss”, “pr–k” and “p—y.” God’s name is misused three times, twice with the word d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Though the movie takes place during Prohibition, band members drink from a flask and talk about “good Chicago bourbon.” Members of the band smoke cigarettes, too, and they may pass around a joint containing something stronger. A song called “Moonshine Blues” becomes a point of contention.
Racism is a big theme here, and we see and hear of probably too many instances of it to detail. Some come in the form of stories detailed, in part, in previous sections. Others are (by comparison) less dramatic: The band members contorting themselves to squeeze past white men hogging the sidewalk; the look two black men receive when they enter a grocery store; recording execs taking advantage of talented black musicians. Some, like Toledo, preach about the importance of making things better. Others, like Levee, aim to use the white power structure to further his own ends. And every interaction between Ma, her agent Irvin and the white studio owner feels like a racially charged fight over power.
But prejudice lurks elsewhere, too. When Ma leaves her posh, blacks-only hotel for the recording studio, she’s eyed judgmentally by the hotel’s wealthy, more genteel clientele.
We hear about some band members’ gambling habits.
The screenplay for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was technically written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. But its beating heart remains August Wilson’s play, written in 1982. It’s not the first work of the Pulitzer-winning playwright to be made into a movie. Fences, a beautifully agonizing family drama, was pushed to the big screen in 2016 by Denzel Washington, and it earned Viola Davis her first Academy Award.
Davis is back here, starring as the indomitable Ma Rainey, and she’s on track for more awards-season consideration. She’s joined by Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance before his untimely death from colon cancer. And both are, frankly, amazing here. Credit part of that to Wilson’s gorgeously earthy writing: Listening to the play’s rat-a-tat poetry can entrance and even thrill.
But whatever the movie’s merits might be, we’re still dealing with some pretty tough material here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is, ultimately, a tragedy. Race and faith both play big roles in where the story winds up. Contextually, you can understand how and why Wilson uses both, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear about some of the horrific, racist acts characters either experience or talk about. Nor does it make it any easier to watch as someone screams profanities at God. And as important as this true story can feel at times, and as good as its performances are, the content will just be too harsh, too profane, too scarring for many.
On one level, that’s a shame. On another, that’s the way some stories play out. This is a difficult movie, but not a gratuitous one. It, like the blues, gets down in the muck. But it also makes its own sort of music.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.