“A-one, A-two, a-you know what to do...”
On Monday, a select few of us were invited to a sneak peek preview of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as well as a panel discussion with the film’s director, George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and titular star Viola Davis, moderated by author, journalist and filmmaker Nelson George.
Produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is inspired by August Wilson’s 1984 Broadway play of the same name—but while it is an adaptation, this is not a “play on film,” as George notes, “it is a movie.”
The film’s synopsis, from Netflix’s press release:
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman)—who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry—spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
Prior to the panel conversation with Wolfe and Davis, Wolfe and George introduced five never-before-seen clips from the film as well as the trailer debut. The clips were filled with richness and vibrancy, from the deep dark eyeliner and “greasepaint,” (which Davis notes is how Ma Rainey’s makeup is described) to the silver caps in her teeth. I was thrust into Ma Rainey’s world, as the film chronicles what is essentially the end of her career. In just a few preview frames, I was mesmerized by Davis’ transformation (in body and soul) as she encapsulated the essence of a woman with an unapologetic and sensual spirit.
“I felt that it was my mission to absolutely not make [her homosexuality] a negative,” Davis said during the panel. “I think a lot of people do that, lately...If I were to be so bold to say, especially in our community sometimes—but I didn’t want to do that because when I read about Ma Rainey, she simply was. Dussie Mae was her woman, unapologetically. She feels her up even during the recording session, and it’s your job to approach a character, not with any kind of editorial comment. It’s your job to play her as she is. That’s how you honor her.”
This was true to Ma Rainey’s life, as Wolfe points out; the lyrics in her song, “Prove It On Me Blues”: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends; They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.”
Along with snippets of what will undoubtedly be outstanding performances from the likes of Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Taylour Paige (as Wolfe reiterated, every single person gave their all in this film), I couldn’t help but feel a bittersweet melancholy and pride when I saw the clips of Chadwick Boseman as Levee, brimming with life and passion. As the significance of his last role before his unexpected and heartbreaking death resonated through the room (yes, even virtually), Davis and Wolfe reminisced on what it was like to work with him.
“We had a two-week rehearsal period where we talked a lot and we dug into the material, then we started shooting,” Wolfe revealed. “At the end, I felt so blessed; everybody in the cast is just exceptional. And Chad, he put his entire being into Levee—and in some respect, Levee demands that simply because of the Herculean scale of the role. It’s a phenomenal character. And he put every ounce of his energy, heart and passion into it. I remember literally once a week while we were filming, Chadwick would come up to me and say, ‘I’m so glad we had the two weeks of rehearsal.’”
For Davis, there was certainly a special kinship working opposite Boseman, especially portraying two characters who are essentially at odds with one another.
“Not to compete with Chadwick’s mother, but Chadwick is my baby,” Davis mused. “I actually probably said that to him a couple of times and I’m sure he was like ‘Whaaaat?’ I just had a great time working with him. I played this mom in Get On Up and Chadwick was just an artist. That’s just who he was. I don’t know if people understand the absolute impact of that statement because we are in the business [where] a lot of times people have business conversations that masquerade themselves as artistic conversations. They don’t understand the difference. They don’t understand the difference between getting on set and demanding food being brought to them or [that] they’re vegetarians, their dietary concerns [or] having their car ready. They don’t know the difference between that and actually making choices as an actor, getting down and dirty and doing the work and leaving your ego and your vanity at the door.”
I was already highly anticipating this project when I learned of the cast, but with this preview, I’m even more excited to see it all come together.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom drops on Netflix on December 18.