She also represents the old school — an established star who works in a Southern style that Levee thinks is behind the times. Part of the history embedded in the play is the story of the Great Migration of Black Southerners to the industrial cities of the North, and Levee suspects that his fleet, light-fingered approach to the blues will appeal to the tastes of the migrants, and also cross over to white record buyers. He epitomizes a different kind of artistic temperament as well — cocky, impulsive, tilting toward self-destruction. He argues with the other musicians, refusing to listen when they try to talk sense to him. He seduces Dussie Mae, a risky career move to say the least. He’s a young man in a hurry, eager to cash checks before they’ve been written.
Of course it’s hard to watch Levee — to marvel at Boseman’s lean and hungry dynamism — without feeling renewed shock and grief at Boseman’s death earlier this year. And though “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has been around for a long while and will endure in the archive, the algorithm and the collective memory, there is something especially poignant about encountering it now.
Not because it’s timely in an obvious or literal way — the argument of Wilson’s oeuvre is that time to reckon with racism is always now, because Black lives have always mattered — but because of some unexpected emotional resonances. Wilson’s text is a study in perseverance, but it’s haunted by loss, and to encounter it at the end of 2020 is to feel the weight of accumulated absences.
Some are permanent and tragic, like losing Boseman at just 43. Others are, we hope, temporary. This is a rendering of a work written for the stage that begins with a concert — a sweaty, sensual spectacle of the blues in action. It’s also a movie that you’ll most likely encounter in your living room or on your laptop, further confounding an inevitable identity conundrum. Should we call this theater, cinema or television — or a sometimes graceful, sometimes clumsy hybrid of all three?
Maybe the question doesn’t matter, or maybe it will matter more once we regain our critical bearings and the theaters and nightclubs fill up again. But at the moment, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a powerful and pungent reminder of the necessity of art, of its sometimes terrible costs and of the preciousness of the people, living and dead, with whom we share it. “Blues help you get out of bed in the morning,” Ma says. “You get up knowing you ain’t alone.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Watch on Netflix.