The Embrace Between Black Joy and Black Pain, As Told By Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Disclaimer: If you have not already seen Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo and more, this post DOES CONTAIN SPOLERS.
There exists a delicate balance between Black joy and Black pain, namely because they are often close behind each other. In art, these two things, Black joy and Black pain, can be one in the same and it takes a masterful artist to fully express both emotions in the light they both deserve to be seen in. George C. Wolfe, and all the cast and crew, brought this joy and pain together in such a delicate and complex dance with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom which is now available for viewing on Netflix. While watching Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, my laughs and tears played ping pong with each other, with my pride in Black art and history being the ball that was passed back and forth.
The film sets the emotional stage with its opening scene. It shows two Black men running through the woods at night, seemingly in a frantic rush, with the sound of dogs at their heels. Because Black cinema has trained my emotions well, I immediately thought "Oh no". I've grown so accustomed to seeing terrible violence enacted on Black bodies on screen that I registered this opening scene as runaway slaves being chased down, completely ignoring the time period in which this film was set. I was delighted to find that it wasn't a needlessly traumatizing scene, but that the boys were simply running to catch a concert in time, a concert starring the one and only, Ma Rainey.
The choice to begin the film this way was deliberate and pointed. In less than a minute, it highlighted the anxiety that Black viewers feel when watching films focused on Black history but it also calmed that anxiety with the pride Black viewers feel when watching films focused on Black history. See, these emotions exist in the same world for Black viewers, speaking to Black people's ability to "make do", to make joy part of their lives despite their circumstances. This is another strong theme within this film.
Early on in the film, Toledo, played by Glynn Turman and Levee, played by the late and dearly missed Chadwick Boseman, have a discussion on Black people's desire to always want to have a good time. Toledo, being significantly older than Levee, was concerned that Black people let "having a good time" be a distraction from moving the Black community forward and Levee, being a fun-loving and stubborn young man, argued that Black people deserve to have a good time, given their circumstances shaped by social injustice. This scene's conversation is reflected in a later scene with Ma, played Viola Davis, and Cutler, played by Colman Domingo. In that scene, Ma explains why blues music exists and how white people hear it but can't understand why it started. She talks about blues being a way to understand life, to make sense of your environment, and we understand that she means blues music was born out of Black pain.
The scenes, though in different ways, illustrate this dance between Black joy and Black pain. Black joy is either stalked and disturbed by Black pain like in Toledo and Levee's scene or Black joy and Black pain are one in the same how Ma explains in her scene with Cutler. Toledo represents the anxiety that clouds Black joy. Even in times of rejoicing and fun, Black people have to watch their backs, have to plan for the future, have to stay focused. Toledo presents a very real fear within the Black community, that if they get too distracted they will never truly progress. And this fear is not unwarranted because history shows that America was simply not built with the progression of Black people in mind and true progression cannot be trusted to anyone but Black people. So, when Black joy is in the room, Black pain is always in the corner ready to bring reality back.
Black joy and Black pain can also come from the same place, as they did with blues music. Blues music originated from a place of deep sorrow within Black people. Its roots are with slaves and how we know it today is as Toledo sings in his solo soliloquy, leftovers. There is joy in music, in dancing, in singing, in the same way that there is joy in eating around a table with your loved ones, even if the food you're eating is throwaway meat. Viola Davis said it beautifully in the interview special talking about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
She says "Blues music belongs to the African-American experience. It's ours as much as collard greens and hog maw and chitlins and all of that. As much as we took the leftovers of everything, and we transformed it in this, like, beautiful alchemy into art and something beautiful. That's how I see blues music. It's ours."
"Blues music belongs to the
The deterioration of the character Levee is what pulls this dance between joy and pain together. There's an added layer to this already complex character because of the film being released after the death of Chadwick Boseman. The presence of Chadwick in and of itself is both Black joy and Black pain wrapped in one beautifully terrible bow. He was, and is, a joy to see on screen and was described by co-stars as a joy to be around and work with. His dedication to the art, to Black people, brings nothing but joy to my heart and his departure from this world left a hole in the Black community where pain and sorrow reside. No one was better suited to fully express the character of Levee and almost as if it were planned, no one's absence illustrates the emptiness of Levee's soul quite like Chadwick Boseman.
Levee is obsessed with his music, grounded by it as Viola Davis points out, and convinced it will propel him forward. He represents the promises the north presented to Black people during The Great Migration and Mr. Sturdyvant's treatment of him represents the falsity of those promises and the exploitation of Black art. In his chilling fight with God, Levee shows the depths of Black joy and Black pain. God, or the belief in something greater, has always been part of American-Black culture because it's what kept slaves going through times being treated worse than animals. That clinging to God, to something greater, to a better place, has been passed down through generations and represents an indescribable joy for some, like Cutler. In that same breath, God can lay the foundation for great frustration, sorrow and pain, like in Levee. God represents both hope and abandonment, depending on your perceptive. Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo quite literally display the elaborate dance between Black joy and Black pain.
As with a lot of Black art, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is a complex and deeply gorgeous piece forever stamping Black history in the memory of America. From the make up to the wardrobe to the dedicated actors and actresses, the film paints the picture of the haves and the have nots. It is an honorable representation of Ma Rainey's legacy and the influence of blues music on society and provides a space for viewers to wrestle with emotions.
A space where both Black joy and Black pain are free to perform and be heard in equal light.