I have always loved stage plays. I love the way the dialogue captures the heart, slowly at first, but then it clutches your soul… and draws you in. Your line of sight is focused, in the scene, in how the players sit around a prop – a throne, a queen, a skull, a jug, a baby grand piano. The pacing is swift. It has to be, to keep you in your seat. The settings are few, but the stories are often deep, many-textured and still mundane. They follow the flow of life, yet faster. Going backward and forward, stage plays are simultaneously; a window into the everyday, into the possible, into the divine.
As a lover of plays watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom [hereinafter, MRBB], even if you did not know beforehand, you can immediately decipher that the story was written for the stage. August Wilson’s poetic genius is visible in how he uses the everyday to speak about deep societal issues that are also lived… everyday. There are many themes to be found in a viewing of MRBB, and a further exploration into these themes can be discovered by watching the Netflix 30-minute documentary MRBB: A legacy brought to screen [after watching the movie of course]. The documentary is highly recommended in this regard. Including the heartfelt words from Denzel Washington about his colleague and friend Chadwick Boseman: ‘I love him. I miss him.’ Oh how we miss him!
[See my tribute to Chadwick Boseman]
In this article, I will be exploring some of the themes that struck me most. I am sure they will be many other articles about this masterpiece of a movie. Please note: there are spoilers from here on in – don’t read till you watch the movie. Please.
The play and the movie centres around one day in the life of an actual and iconic blues singer – Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues. On a sweltering summer’s day in 1927, Ma Rainey and her band travel to the supposedly more free North to record an album. The story draws us into the dynamics inside the band and outside it. Forces from long ago, whose fingers reach into the present, like ghostly apparitions that persistently rob, stir these dynamics. There are forces of unearned power, of preening greed, of time-worn and time-young dehumanisation. Running through the background is a commentary on the role of the blues in American life. In the words of Ma Rainey, on why we sing despite it all:
There are very few films that have had a more stellar cast and crew. I could have watched the film just to here the deep timbre of Colman Domingo’s voice. The overall casting is perfect. Viola Davis shines so brightly in this. She inhabits Ma Rainey. And Chadwick Boseman brings to life a character of such devastating complexity, it will sit with me for years. The genius of Ma Rainey is unearthed by the dexterity of August Wilson’s pen, brought to screen with the artistic flair of George C Wolfe, under the sagacious eye of Denzel Washington, encased in the exquisite costume design of Ann Roth! MRBB is a gift. This gift includes my new catchphrase, ‘I ain’t studying you.’
Theme 1 – The Winner Takes it All: Who owns whose culture?
Every so often, a ‘row’, online or offline, erupts about cultural appropriation – which in my opinion is one of the most misused terms in current times. [Ashley Lee writes about it in relation to MRBB in the LA Times] But also note how many terms around racial injustice are often distorted and deliberately misunderstood in a similar way: ‘identity politics‘, ‘woke‘, ‘intersectionality‘, ‘decolonisation‘… There seems to be in this long history of appropriation, an almost inexorable need to take, and in the taking, silence falls. So, here I am starting with the last scene of MRBB, where about a dozen white men are recording Levee’s song for Sturdyvant. Because what is often called cultural appropriation, is best understood in the final scene, in the final analysis, in the very idea of what it means to own. To own. To have. To possess. To secure. Securely. Let your gaze be captured, not just by the bland lifeless display that is the finality of taking what belongs to a person, to a people, but also reflect on who benefits when people are paid in exposure for their time, their genius. Reflect on what happens when people are paid a pittance for the cultural practices and artefacts of a people shorn from the origins of those practices. Let your mind reflect on what it means to own securely. A plot of land that can never be taken. In the final scene, in the final analysis, songs about life become just words. The ceremonial jugs of spiritual use are merely brass. And there are always broken bodies and souls on the way. Look to the final scene. Who owns whose culture?
Theme 2 – An Elegy On Strange Fruit
When I teach about Emmett Till, I try to convey the entire injustice of it all. But there are no words enough on this earth and in the heavens, to explain why human beings would even think of lynching another human being. To lynch – such a short word for such an act of enduring racial terror. Victims were often hung, shot repeatedly, burned alive, forced to jump off bridges, dragged behind cars. Emmett Till was beaten up and mutilated before he was shot in the head and his body sunk in the Tallahatchie River. He was 14. Despite overwhelming evidence at the trial of those accused of murdering him, it took the jurors 67 minutes to return a verdict of ‘not guilty’. And this happened over and over and over and over again. The entire injustice of it all. According to the Tuskegee Institute, between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 African Americans where lynched in the US. And even today, white civilians are still repeatedly willing to call the equivalent of a firing squad on African Americans… for living while Black.
I cannot remember the first time I heard the song Strange Fruit. It is a melody that sits with you. Haunts you. The long intro on the wind instruments almost echoes the swaying back and forth of bodies hung up trees, swaying in the breeze.
MRBB is set in 1927, right in the middle of the period when lynchings could be enacted with little provocation and minimal consequence. But apart from the story of Levee’s father being lynched for getting revenge on the white men who raped Levee’s mother, there is no other overt mention of this racial terror. But you can feel it in the atmosphere. In the sweltering heat. In the police officer’s eyes. In the stance of the passers by. In Cutler’s slight stoop when he talks to the agent and music producer. In the insurmountable distance. In Ma Rainey’s rush to be back home as soon as possible. Terror. In. The. Air. No one wants to be a strange fruit. Cutler tells the story of Reverend Gates, stuck in Sigsbee, forced at gunpoint by a group of white youth to dance for his life. His Bible torn, his cross wrenched from his neck. He dances to jeering howls. No one wants to be a strange fruit. It is this story that prompts one of the most emotional and gripping scenes in this movie, when Levee points his knife at the heavens and screams, sweat dripping, spit flying: DID YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON ME?!! This scene means so much more, because we now know that the actor was dying from cancer while acting… he is pointing at the sky. ‘Did you turn your back on ME?’ No one wants to be a strange fruit. Yet here we are. Living while dying. Dying while living.
Theme 3 – The Constant Tragedy Of the Other Strange Fruit
If you have watched MRBB, [I sincerely hope you have, because I told you at the start not to read this if you haven’t!], you know there is a gripping scene where Levee tells a story about how he witnessed his mother being raped by white men – probably because his family was considered ‘uppity’ for daring to own good land. He tells of how he defends his mother with his father’s knife and get slashed across the chest by one of the rapists for this. And how even the vet refuses to treat his gaping wounds. He was nine or ten years old at the time. Throughout the movie Levee tells anyone who stands still next to him for more than 5 seconds, ‘I am going to form my own band!’. His wide smile hiding so many ghosts. The fixated idea of the band is a form of revenge for the violation of his youth, of his life even, that he suffered at the hands of white people. He will form his own band because success is the best revenge. But Ma Rainey fires him for daring to encroach on her territory, both professionally and personally. Mr Sturdyvant buys Levee’s compositions for a pittance and so Levee stabs Toledo to death because Toledo steps on Levee’s new shoes. And so we have another meaningless story of violence. If our gaze is captured by Levee’s final scene only, Levee with his hands covered in Toledo’s blood, we only see what we would call senseless ‘Black-on-Black crime’ [whatever that means.] But this final scene makes no sense without the first scene, and so, we go back, we go back to Levee witnessing his mother’s rape. But this is not the first scene. And so, we go back… The first scene is the real crime scene. Stolen land, stolen labour, stolen riches, enjoying stolen culture. And in the final scenes, across time and space, are the other strange fruit. They may not be hanging from trees and swinging in the breeze, but there is still a strange and bitter crop. Still. This final scene makes no sense without the first scene. Still.