Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
by director George C. Wolfe
In the blues song Michigan Water, jazz great Jelly Roll Morton seductively croons:
Michigan Water taste like sherry wine, mean sherry wine
Mississippi Water taste like turpentine
For the over 100,000 Black people who migrated to Chicago from the Deep South during the first twenty years of the twentieth century, the waters of Lake Michigan must have felt intoxicating indeed. But as Jelly Roll warned, those waters turned brutally mean the summer of 1919, when a 17-year-old Black boy went swimming and inadvertently crossed an invisible line of racial demarcation. He was attacked and drowned.
When no arrests were made for the young boy’s death, Black people took to the street in protest. During the ensuing confrontations, a white mob stormed Bronzeville, Chicago’s Black neighborhood. Five days later 37 were dead, 536 injured, and over a thousand left homeless.
The film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set during the summer of 1927. As the same racial embers which erupted eight years earlier continue to simmer, enter a different kind of explosion, but no less stinging or socially significant. Enter singer-songwriter-showbiz entrepreneur, the legendary Ma Rainey, a Black woman from Columbus, Georgia, who is used to obeying nobody’s rules but her own.
Ma Rainey, aka “The Mother of the Blues,” has come north for a one-day recording session. Included in her entourage is her nephew Sylvester, her newest girlfriend Dussie Mae, and band members Toledo, Slow Drag, Cutler and Levee.
Ma Rainey, as crafted by playwright August Wilson, breaks a number of rules, including those of August Wilson himself. She is the only character in August’s magnificent ten play cycle chronicling the African American existence during the 20th Century, who is based on a real person. She is also the only LGBTQ character, as was Ma, an out lesbian who in her song Prove It On Me, unabashedly proclaims—
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
Must have been women cause I don’t like men.
Equally unique about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered on Broadway in 1984, is that it’s the only play in the cycle which is not set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the famed black neighborhood where August Wilson spent his formative years.
But the one quality the piece shares with the rest of August Wilson’s work is its stunning language; language which is as exalted as it is visceral and raw.
As the characters in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sermonize, philosophize, talk shit, confront and condemn, their cascading words become a symphonic composition which celebrates the pain, joy and wonder of being Black, human and alive.
In as much as Ma Rainey, the historical figure, was a trailblazer, by 1927 the world was starting to leave her behind. Bessie Smith, Ma’s protege and alleged former lover, had eclipsed her in record sales and popularity. And each week The Duke Ellington Orchestra could be heard on the radio, live from The Cotton Club; the modernity of Ellington’s harmonics, the polar opposite of Ma Rainey and her jug band blues.
Levee, Ma’s cornet player, who has his own musical sound and vision of the future, sees his time in Chicago as a chance to break free of the strictures which have kept Black performers/artists from having the creative careers they deserve.
Will Levee have a future full of promise and possibility, or will the demons of his past and ours as a country keep him and us from moving forward, unencumbered and free?
The blues as an art form has always struck me as having the power to transform the paradoxical (faith vs despair, anguish vs desire) into a balm for the hopeful heart. Or to quote Ma Rainey—
“The blues helps you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song.”
I'm thrilled that thanks to Netflix the film will be available all over the world—I love that we are able to reach a diverse and global audience. And I'm equally thrilled that for the people who crave the inimitable experience of watching a film in a theater—laughing, crying or being on the edge of your seat and sharing that communal experience—Landmark has made that magic happen for us.
-George C. Wolfe