Since I hadn’t done any research, I went into Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a new Netflix production about the titular Mother of the Blues, thinking it was going to play out like most other movies about famous musicians. Like I Walk the Line or even Inside Llewelyn Davis, I was expecting something akin to a sprawling biopic filled with a dizzying number of locales, people, and songs. The songs were there, alright, but—much to my surprise—the faces and places weren’t. Rather, most of the narrative takes place in one setting, across the span of a single day, following what may very well be the most disastrous recording session ever put to page.
I say ‘page’ instead of ‘screen,’ because Ma Rainey’s actually came into being as a play, one of several from the celebrated African-American playwright August Wilson that Denzel Washington has expressed interest in adapting following the release of his 2016 film Fences. Once you know this, the limited set design and extended monologues seem less like bold creative moves on part of screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and more like necessary evils involved in translating a story from one medium to another, though I should add that this does not make Ma Rainey’s any less excellent.
Far from it. Thanks to respectable direction as well as a host of excellent performances—including one particularly heartbreaking swan song from the late Chadwick Boseman—the film is pretty much guaranteed to become a frontrunner at the Oscars. And yet, these aren’t the things I want to talk about today, not because I don’t think they’re worth talking about, but because so many others have done so already, I’d add very little to their conversation. Instead, I want to focus on a topic I haven’t seen discussed: the technical similarities between Ma Rainey’s and another enduring film about race-relations in America: Spike Lee’s 1989 hit, Do the Right Thing.
Although that movie didn’t start out as a play, Lee still structured his modern script according to the conventions of the ancient artform. Like Ma Rainey’s, it too takes place in the span of a single day, and although the narrative jumps to a handful of settings, each is part of the same microcosm that is Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. On top of that, several characters correspond with tropes from Athenian tragedy. The three elderly gentlemen observing the narrative from the curb, for instance, form a chorus that stands in for the audience. By sticking to the building blocks of theater, Lee and Wilson can tell stories that feel more intimate, more grounded in space and time, than screenplays like Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody ever could.
Temperature, Tension, And Theatrics
As far as tension goes, Ma Rainey’s and Do the Right Thing also build up toward their ultraviolent climaxes using the tiniest of steps. Things like riots and murder may happen in the heat of the moment, but they are brought about by many different factors. Speaking of heat, both narratives take place on exceptionally hot summer days. As temperatures run high, emotions do too, and every character becomes a little more irritable than usual. While these extreme weather conditions aren’t solely responsible for the death of Toledo, or the burning of Sal’s Famous in Do The Right Thing, they evidently create a solid foundation on which other kinds of micro-stressors can be stacked.
In the case of Ma Rainey’s, these stressors include—but are not limited to—Levee and Ma arriving at the recording studio much later than promised, the owners of said studio assigning the band to a small, decrepit rehearsal room with a seemingly broken fan and a locked door, Levee insisting they should play his songs, Ma insisting they should play hers, Ma picking her stuttering nephew to announce their first number, the nephew’s mic being unplugged just when he finally gets it right, the producer forgetting (or refusing) to buy Ma her Coca-Cola, and Toledo accidentally stepping on Levee’s brand-new shoes.
Those shoes are a particularly important plot device, by the way, as they prove to be the last straw for Levee, compelling him to stab his friend and colleague in the back. Like Radio Raheem’s stereo, which Sal smashes to smithereens with a baseball bat in Do The Right Thing, Levee’s shoes are a source of pride; to step on them—so he thinks—is to say you don’t respect him. When Radio Raheem stands up to defend his basic human rights, he ends up being strangled by white policemen. Although Levee doesn’t die, it’s clear that his life—specifically, his dreams of becoming a successful musician—are over. And indeed, before the credits roll, we see that Mr. Sturdyvant, who at the start of the film appeared enthralled by the young Black man’s charisma, hired a white band to record his music.
It is worth noting that Ma Rainey’s—Wilson’s play, not Washington’s movie—came out 15 years before Do the Right Thing, and that it is much more likely that Lee took inspiration from the famous playwright rather than the other way around. That said, the purpose of this comparison wasn’t to argue that both stories are in any way identical, but instead to highlight some of the techniques that filmmakers can use to portray complex social, cultural and racial issues in realistic and effective ways. Thanks, in part, to such techniques, Ma Rainey’s—just as Do The Right Thing—will surely remain relevant for many years to come.