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'Ma Rainey's' director on celebrating artists now gone


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Amna Nawaz: It is a deeply American story, showcasing one of the country's great vocal artists.

The new film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is available on Netflix now.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Viola Davis: If they want to call me Mother Blues, that's all right with me. It don't hurt none.


Jeffrey Brown: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is about music and race, sorrow and survival.

Set on a hot summer day in Chicago 1927 in a small recording studio, it doesn't travel far in either time or space, yet somehow speaks to something much larger of the country's deep pain.

Director George C. Wolfe:

George C. Wolfe: So much about America is unresolved, and so much of this film is about that which is unresolved, inside the characters, inside of America.

And so the chance that these intrinsically American stories, these intrinsically African American stories are going to be shared all over the world is a great thing.

Jeffrey Brown: It's also a chance to celebrate and honor three great American artists, all now gone, beginning with playwright August Wilson. The play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" first produced on Broadway in 1984 is part of Wilson's epic cycle of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, each set around some aspect of Black American life.

Wilson died in 2005 at age 60.

Four years earlier, he spoke with the late Gwen Ifill on the "NewsHour."

August Wilson: I am. I'm a Black American playwright. I couldn't deny it. I couldn't be anything else. I make my art out of Black American culture. They're all cut out of the same cloth, if you will. That's who I am. That's who I write about.

Viola Davis: White folk don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there.

Jeffrey Brown: One hallmark of Wilson's plays, the power and poetry of his language.

In the film version of "Ma Rainey," Viola Davis plays the title character.

Viola Davis: Blues help me get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world, something been added by that song.

George C. Wolfe: It encapsules exploitation, liberation of the music, violation of the spirit, what the blues does to the human condition, all within this one speech.

When you have a -- if you have a thrilling actress like Viola Davis do it, it becomes -- you surrender to it. And then you pull back and you go, oh, my God, the world, the universe just expanded while she was talking.

Jeffrey Brown: The real woman on whom the story is based, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, also expanded the universe of American music.

Called the Mother of the Blues, she performed with the likes of Louis Armstrong, mentored a young Bessie Smith. She worked for years in Chicago, but spent much of her life in the South. Her Columbus, Georgia, home is now a museum. She was businesswoman and star.

George C. Wolfe: She put on shows. I think there were like -- we see just a hint of it. And, sometimes, the shows she put on, there would be 50 performers.

And it would be a series of -- it was just sort of -- so she was like -- was the Southern Black female Ziegfeld, in terms of a genre, and very successful.

Jeffrey Brown: The film is set around one of her Chicago recording sessions. In the mid-'20s, she recorded nearly 100 songs and had numerous hits.

Whites controlled the business, but Ma controlled the music.

Viola Davis: We will be ready to when madam says we're ready to go, and that's way it go around here.

George C. Wolfe: There are Jim Crow laws. There's lynching going on.

Oh, but in the South, she's her own entrepreneur. She learned -- she owns two theaters. She toured around. In the North, she has to deal with the white power structure in order to do what she does.

Jeffrey Brown: Finally, the most recent loss, Chadwick Boseman, who died this year of colon cancer at age 43.

As a young actor, he played icons of American life, including Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and, in 2017, Thurgood Marshall.

When I talked with him at the time, he spoke of his approach to acting the silences, as well as the words.

Chadwick Boseman: That's actually just as hard, if not harder, than having the huge speech at the end or the closing statement.

Jeffrey Brown: It was just two years ago that he achieved international stardom as the Black Panther, commanding his world and the screen.

Chadwick Boseman: What is you? I don't see your name in lights.

Jeffrey Brown: In "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," his final role, Boseman plays Levee, a young horn player with a deeply scarred past in the South.

Chadwick Boseman: If my daddy had known I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel. I'm going to get me a band and make me some records.

I done give Mr. Sturdyvant some of my songs I wrote, and he say he going to let me record them when I get my band together. I just got to finish the last part of this song.

I got style.

Actor: Oh, everybody got style. Style ain't nothing, but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.

Chadwick Boseman: Everybody can't play like I do.

Jeffrey Brown: What made him a great actor? What is it that makes somebody stand out like that?

George C. Wolfe: He was deeply dedicated to his craft. I think he was totally in touch with who he was as a human being. I think there was a grace to him that was -- that's -- that was phenomenal, because it's a character who is bright and charming and arrogant and foolish, and has a vision of what music should sound like in the future.

And at the same time, he's deeply scarred by these things that he witnessed when he was a young boy. And then, with Chadwick, you have this extraordinarily charismatic actor who is also a deeply complicated actor. And so he brought all of that to make this character sing with like pain and possibility.

Chadwick Boseman: I got my time coming to me.

Jeffrey Brown: Lost greats, a renewed classic. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the second in a planned 10-part film project capturing the richness of August Wilson's work.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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