“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in 1927 in Barnesville, Georgia, with two Black men running through the woods with the sounds of dogs barking in the distance. You think, perhaps, they are running for their lives, away from danger. But no, they are running toward a large tent in a clearing and the faint sounds of a woman singing—the Mother of Blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, (Viola Davis).
The Netflix film, also screening in select theaters, is based on August Wilson’s 1984 award-winning play that depicts the career of Rainey, born with the last name Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. The film’s title gets part of its name—”Black Bottom”—from one of Rainey’s popular songs. The majority of Wilson’s story focuses on how desperately a White Chicago music producer (Sturdyvant) wants to record the song, which brings some contention between the singer and her White manager (Irvin). Rainey battles the two men for her respect, recognizing that she has a valuable talent they desperately seek to commodify.
Another focus of the film is Rainey’s four band members—Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Much of the dialogue among the four men as they rehearse for the recording in Chicago reveal how they each deal with life as Black men, especially in a Jim Crow entertainment industry. Levee is young, ambitious, and a bit of a “know it all.” Toledo is a philosopher of life, and Cutler is the one who conforms. As for Slow Drag, actor Michael Potts described his character as a “hedonist…who’s going to find a good time no matter the circumstances” in an interview with Faithfully Magazine.
Potts, actor of the screen (“True Detective,” “The Wire”) and stage (“The Prom”), said Slow Drag, who carries a flask, leans on liquor for a reason: “That helps keep him even—medicated to a certain extent so that he does not have to deal with the daily traumas that these guys do in a sober fashion. He can see everybody’s trauma and how they are dealing with it.”
Below, we highlight some of Potts’ remarks on how themes in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” relate to present times and his experiences working with a star-studded cast, including the late Chadwick Boseman.
On how “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” relates to issues in the Black experience today:
“It’s very topical, but that’s the thing [about] all August Wilson’s writing over the course of his American Century Cycle these 10 years. After the social justice summer we have been through—it tells you that we’re dealing with the same thing. We are still fighting for our humanity—to be recognized…that we are not animals…we are fully human like you. We have our concerns that we [must] deal with. This summer you have heard a lot that Black people—we are tired of having to explain to White people and having to make space for White people’s feelings.
“[In the film] Ma [expresses], ‘I don’t have time for your feelings. I know what I am here to do, I know what I am worth. My voice is worth money to you. I know what I’m owed and you’re going to give me what I’m owed.’
“She says in the movie, ‘I don’t care how much it hurts them, they’re going to give me my respect.’ I think that is what has happened over the summer with Black people dealing with race relations in this country— ‘Going forward we don’t care how much it hurts your feelings, this is what we’re owed.’ And all we are talking about that we’re owed simply is respect—that is the whole [concept] of this movie.
“What leads to the tragic event at the end of the movie for Levee, Chadwick’s character, was a complete lack of respect. Because he never dealt with his past, he acted out in a way that only he could; he acted out on impulse. He lashed out at the only people who were available to him to release that [anger] on.
“There is also the thing about Ma being this dark Black heavy woman who people thought was not attractive and she didn’t care what you thought of her. She was her own person—she took up space without apology. [She] demanded respect and therefore created her own agency in a world that didn’t want to give her agency; she grabbed hold of it and lived it.”
On viewers understanding the full humanity and complexity of African-American life and experience:
“There’s a problem in this country with the dominant culture not seeing us as fully human. [The misconception that] we don’t have the same issues, that we don’t feel pain the same way—that kind of nonsense. What we have had to confront and continue to confront very much like Chadwick’s character, is the trauma of slavery—the trauma of creating a democracy while holding other human beings in bondage; that has not been reckoned with. It will continue to lead to tragic consequences if we do not face that. You do have to recognize and respect African-American people, our stories, our struggle, and our journey because then you’ll begin to understand the texture and the fullness of who we are.”
On working with Chadwick Boseman in his final film role:
“You talk about someone so dedicated to his craft—he worked so hard from the moment he showed up. We were doing regular 12-hour days sometimes and you never saw a flagging in his energy or unwillingness to work. There is a phrase I say in hindsight now [of his]. George [Wolfe] would come in and say, ‘I got everything I need.’ Chad would always be like, ‘No, one more, let me do one more, give me one more.’ So, I had such incredible respect [for him], and more so because in my mind I was like, ‘Oh my God—I’m here with Black Panther. But ‘that’ did not come into the room with Chad. [He and Viola] never made their presence the event—the event was August Wilson’s story.
“There was so much respect for honoring August Wilson’s work and honoring the people with whom you were working. Viola is a force of nature—no question about that—that woman walking around in house shoes [as Rainey] telling people what they can and cannot do. I felt it as an actor, I felt as my character—alright Ma, I ain’t messing with Ma! It was such an appreciation to be able to work with people of this caliber—giants…incredible. Everybody left everything on the floor, no one kept anything for themselves—we put it all out.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Botom” was directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The film is produced by Denzel Washington and Todd Black. Branford Marsalis wrote the movie’s score. Jeremy Shamos (Irvin), Jonny Coyne (Sturdyvant), Taylour Paige (Dussie Mae), and Dusan Brown (Sylvester) also feature in the film.