Amidst career-defining roles, Academy-Award Winner Viola Davis, and the late Chadwick Boseman in perhaps his most poignant role yet, is the power of the immortal black writer. The feat of writers like August Wilson is that they implement the colonial language as a way to liberate the black voice from systemized silence. Wilson fills this silence with music and poignant monologies, capturing the intimacies and idiosyncrasies of black life. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982), like its follow-up, Fences (1984), authors an important and haunting page in the black narrative.
There are several moments in the film that warrant reflection, but I will meditate on how Ma Rainey and Levee collaboratively delineate a notable discourse on the “black bottom.”
The black bottom sits at the core of the film and play. It is the title of Ma’s blues record and sits at the crux of her characterization. Whether the black bottom of the vinyl or the black bottom that Ma shows to all who oppose her, the play complicates the literal figurative b-side. The vinyl, like the literal black bottom, is an archive. The “bottom” scratched for a sound, kissed by ancestry, but due to its abject American placement, becomes “blackened” as a canvas for national, and global, sin. It is also both a symbol of historical exploitation and a badge of intra-cultural glory. Thus, for Ma Rainey to show audiences her “black bottom,” she “shows” all sides of the black experience as a means to wield her cognitive power outward. There is, however, a distinction between bearing the black bottom and presenting a behind to kiss.
This distinction is perhaps synonymous with distinguishing between a Karen complaint and a black bottom that refuses to take their abjection sitting down. A Karen represents those who present their behinds for a kiss, those who take said behind off a chair not presented to the original people of color. While it may be inaccurate to say that Ma Rainey’s black bottom constitutes autonomy, because the referenced 1927 record (like this film adaptation of Wilson’s play) became a product of white ownership, Wilson’s attempt to shade lines not drawn by history posits that the itemized black bottom is not indicative of a cognitive bondage. Here, the distinction between enslaved and slave resurfaces. Specifically, the text invites its audience to consider: in the absence of cogntive bondage can one truly be a slave, even in the face of external itemization?
The bought and sold dynamic is the final chord of the film, a director’s cut not included in Wilson’s version. The film concludes with a white musician and all-white band performing (and I use the word “perform” loosely) the sound Mr. Sturdyvent tells Levee “isn’t right.” The “isn’t right” easily translates to “isn’t white,” personifying one of the most moving lines in the film. Earlier in the film, Ma states: “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” This line is as true for Ma as it is for Levee, who like his ancestors, provided black labor and skill for white gain.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the common “black bottom” that links Ma Rainey and Levee. Ma’s “girl” Dussie Mae, whose backside is the main component to her visual existence in the film, is a field of conquest for both Ma and an aspiring Levee who also acts as a bridge from poverty to wealth, from black to brown, from the solitude of singularity to a companionship bought by commerce. Specifically, it is the quest and desire for a brown and curly-haired trophy, or symbol of status, that links Ma and a young Levee. Ironically, there is also unspoken yet obvious envy between the two. Levee desires the leverage Ma’s talent enables her to hold over her white male counterparts, and Ma appears to view a young, talented, spontaneous, and charming Levee as competition. Levee hopes that “Ma Rainey’s black bottom” will eventually transition to his seat at the table, but by the end of the play he is out on his black bottom with the silenced eyes of a dead man looking into his own.
Unlike the other men, Levee is noticeably ambitious. It is this ambition that makes Levee the scapegoat for all that goes wrong. Though seeming to censure Levee’s lust and free-spirited nature, Levee’s castigation actualizes a pervasive intra-cultural attempt to extinguish the flames of black ambition. This self-policing is, of course, an affect of an anti-black system. Nevertheless, Levee, who Wilson describes as “confusing skill for talent” enters rehearsal with an exteriorization of his internal values and aspirations in a new pair of shoes. He is a man who bears a physical mark of an internal wound that ferments in his flesh. Bearing an intractable past ornamented with a lynched father and sexually violated mother, Levee finds purpose, power, and a creative outlet in music. In short, music constitutes Levee’s “self” and “esteem.” Thus, after being rejected by Ma and Mr. Sturdyvant, the low ceiling for black people in America, specifically beyond the South at this time, becomes ever-present in his promising reality. So when Toledo steps on his shoes, Levee defends what he conceptualizes as all he has in the world, by any means necessary. Here, Wilson embodies what many years later author Ta-nehisi Coates would phrase as “stabbing a man and blaming him for bleeding.” Though Levee fatally stabs Toledo, Levee’s deed engenders an irretrievable fate for him as well.
Levee’a fate is easily pegged as the outcome of his earlier blasphemous speech about god; however, his words elucidate that white supremacy appoints itself as a global god that exudes an internal and external presence in the minds of all who populate colonial space.
This moment in the play and film resembles a similar concluding fate in Ann Petry’s novel The Street (1946), where the protagonist murders another black person as the culmination of a lifetime of domestic terrorism. In tandem, both portraits of early twentieth-century black life elucidate a conundrum that permeates the present. Those who look like us too often become the canvas for centuries of systemic asphyxiation, they become the sound for silence, the oxygen for spaces where white supremacy has removed all the air from, and a way out when backed into a corner. Moreover, black creation. through death and misdeed, collaboratively cautions its constituency against the internal bleeding of our collective scars.
Conclusively, the visual text and original play posit that the black bottom, whether the tangible source of vinyl sound or the systemized bibelot of national appropriation and fascination remains a global fixture that unites blacks in life and death, music and silence, Netflix film adaptation and August Wilson’s original play.