Director George C. Wolfe on Honoring August Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Two great forces of artistic nature come together in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This new, rich Netflix production is an adaptation of a play by the great Black American playwright August Wilson, which Wilson based on the life of blues icon Ma Rainey. Fittingly, the film itself is an alignment of various great talents. Director George C. Wolfe brings to life Wilson’s text with Viola Davis as the overpowering Ma, who is called into a Chicago studio on a sweltering day in 1927 to record some of her hits.  Waiting to back-up Ma is her usual band, composed of seasoned veterans Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and a cocky young trumpet player named Levee, played in his final role by the late Chadwick Boseman. What will transpire is a profound meditation on the Black American experience through music and its exploitation by white corporate suits. 

“It was a lot of fun,” Wolfe told Entertainment Voice when discussing the joys of translating Wilson’s words to cinema. “Working with Tobias A. Schliessler, our DP, we talked about Chicago as this urban center and for all the people like Ma and her band, Chicago is an alien environment. The play was originally set in winter. I chose to set in the summer because I was very intrigued by what heat does to the human body in an urban landscape which is nothing but concrete and brick.” The baroque look of the film was largely inspired by Wolfe looking back at some of the masters. “I became inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio, how the environments are generally dark in his paintings and as a result the characters stick out. The production designer, Mark Ricker, provided this window that almost became a source of celestial light shining down on the characters. I also just wanted to ‘paint’ the sky in Chicago. This happened much more in post, so there’s never this sense of blue, of nature. I just wanted to make Chicago this alien place for all of these characters. Between the heat, and the white sky and the sun and this compression of the band room, was all about pulling the audience in to these visual details. It’s about creating a visual lushness so that therefore you felt seduced to follow this world so when the emotional and artistic violence occurs you’re so invested in the characters’ truth and lives, and it affects you.”

While Wilson’s work is gaining a potent relevancy in its themes about alienation, community and history’s shadow on the Black American community, Wolfe was attracted to the material through the power of Ma’s character. “I didn’t think about how the message was going to resonate. If you do the hard work the message reverberates. I was more intrigued by the potency of Ma. I loved the fact that she did not ask for anyone’s approval. I was drawn to Levee’s desperation to succeed, so much so that he ends up making foolish management decisions. I was drawn to all these stakes that continue to reverberate today. But I couldn’t think about today, I had to dig into the text and find what seemed true and correct about the period. Chicago is a big and complicated city. It’s filled with all these white ethnic groups, there’s this incredible sense of territory. It was magnified back in 1927 about who belongs where.”

Wolfe’s cast brilliantly brings the text and period to life. Davis as Ma is a towering presence yet sober in her observations about people. There’s a hint of a diva who has learned how to maneuver around the sharks of a white-dominated business, while Chadwick’s Levee is the younger musician a little too convinced of his own brilliance. Yet his cockiness also masks deep, wounding scars from horrific childhood experiences. “What you’re looking for, regardless of the medium, you’re looking for truth. Working with Chadwick was interesting because I saw him in the rehearsal begin to peel away whatever layers that existed between him and the role, so by the time we were filming he had located inside of himself Levee and was able to make himself completely available and vulnerable to the character. Viola is such a smart, skilled actor and with a huge emotional reserve. She just brought this ferocity and clarity. Also, Levee didn’t exist. He only exists as a text. But Viola did extensive amounts of research about Ma Rainey, about details about her, about her makeup, about her size. She had that template to play with combined with her truths and her understanding as an artist and as a Black woman. It was a glorious experience watching them layer in and layer in these personal details and truths. It shattered the artifice that someone else had written these characters.”

Colman, Turman and Potts also attested to Entertainment Voice the unique environment on set to craft a sense of place and time, as well as intimate truth. “We would go to dinner and get to know each other, to know each other as family,” said Colman. “We got to know what made us tick to establish that level of trust. We knew the task was to do this incredible taxing work, this incredibly detailed work. So we needed a level of trust. Then we just let the work work on us and work on each other, to let people work the engine they were supposed to play. You leave that room and space for the trumpet, for the voice to sour, for someone to play the bass, for someone to play the melody, give it some bottom. It is truly laid out, everyone’s role in the band. You know what notes you need to play and that’s how you get that glorious sound. I want to add that you needed so much humor. We laughed so much around each other. Especially around these intense scenes, we had to laugh, man. We had to reach some scripture sometimes. Denzel Washington would come in with some of it and say, ‘read that.’ We had to get our souls right together.”

“You first begin by trusting August Wilson,” said Potts about jumping into the film and its rich, intense language. Nearly every character is given either a strong moment or long monologue full of scorching revelations or simple bits of wisdom. “You trust the words of August Wilson because you can’t say them any better than he says it. Then you do your homework, you figure out what drives these characters, and what they want. You learn the history, the relationships I have with Toledo and Levee. You have to also trust your fellow actors that you’re in the piece with and listen. Listen very, very closely to them, remain open. We’re a band. The great bands play off of one another. As the bass player my job is to keep the beat. That gives off an opportunity to riff off of what we’re doing. As an actor in an ensemble that becomes the goal, to listen to the notes that everyone else is playing.”

For Turman the script has a strong relevance in the themes the band members discuss about their roles as Black artists and how Wilson treats the theme of self-imposed despair when conditions feel hopeless. “He has a very important question: What’s the Black man going to do with himself? Followed by how we need to come together. We saw an example of what he was talking about in this past election. This is exactly what he was talking about. What can happen when Black people can come together and stop bullshitting with that talk of ‘I’m not going to vote, it doesn’t mean anything.’ You throw that out the window and you come together and you work together and vote together to make conditions better for everybody. Then you can come together as individuals who have taken control of their destiny. This is the right movie for the right time in the right venue.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix.