Bottoms is Tops

Greetings from southern California, where this weekend space in hospital ICU’s have reached ZERO percent. 

That means if you get really sick with Covid-19 there’s no guarantee you’ll get the care you need.  In fact, it’s likely you won’t.

It kind of makes you think, right? 

It also kind of makes you philosophical, kind of makes you want to do something, anything to escape and generally, definitely makes you want to pull the covers over your head and enter a pretend world that you can control.

Ok BYE!

But as the old saying goes, wherever you are, there you are.

Nevertheless we try and sometimes it works, for a bit.  But ultimately reality intrudes.  The best we can hope for is that whatever the escape we choose brings us momentary relief or, at best, a new perspective.

My escape of choice these days is entertainment, specifically lying prone on my couch and watching a movie, TV or streaming series, documentary, or whatever, on my big ass TV in order to drown out the noise in my brain. 

:: Gets heating pad ::

I suspect I’m no different than the many millions of us fortunate enough to have this option right now during a 9-month+ global pandemic. 

Yes, I am aware of my privilege, which doesn’t make me any less privileged.  But entering other people’s lives and worlds in order to escape mine at least gives me some perspective. 

This is what great creative work provides – entertainment, education and illumination. 

Some good comes of this I promise

Not only are you not alone but you might, just might, not know everything or do everything right.  And the good news about that is, unlike the characters or actors in a set story, you have the option to make a course correction before it’s too late.

I couldn’t help but consider these and many other existential choices Friday night, and every night since, watching the first rate on every level, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix.

It’s a film rendering of the late August Wilson’s 1982 play, one of a cycle of plays that deal with African American stories in modern historical time periods via finely etched characters seldom rendered so humanly and consistently well-flawed before.

Bottom’s is the Chair’s Top pick

Each time a white person, or at least this white person, watches an August Wilson story, it somehow manages to show you something recognizable AND something you hadn’t taken the time to notice before.  The latter is particularly true for those of us who’ve lived oblivious to the depths of other people’s cultural experiences, which is pretty much all of us.

Ostensibly, the Netflix film centers around the real life blues powerhouse singer Ma Rainey and a turbulent afternoon recording session in1920s Chicago.  The formidable Ma battles for control of her destiny with the white powers-that-be trying to dictate the terms of the session, and tangles with the members of the all Black and male band backing her.

In particular, Ma has a distaste for her brilliant young trumpeter, Levee, who exemplifies everything she disdains.  This would not only be a jazzier and what would grow to be more massively popular version of her blues but also a certain kind of charming, smiley, swaggering maleness that she very justifiably distrusts.

The awards are coming…

Powerful as all of the many stories we learn about under this dramatic construction may be (and there are an impressive amount of them), the film is also a tour de force reminder of everything and everyone we’ve pretty much ignored up to this point in our everyday lives.

The people who hang out on the street with a musical instrument in tow, the young guy who stutters, the polite older guy who goes with the flow, even the flirty young woman who doesn’t seem adept at doing much of anything but flirting.  Those are just a few examples but there are lots more.

These days we almost expect prestige dramatic films to address issues like racism, sexism and homophobia (all of which fester in Ma Rainey).  What we don’t expect nearly enough is the power in everything and everyone we’ve overlooked. 

What we do expect is another amazing performance by Viola Davis

How could we possibly think about their hopes, dreams and disappointments when we’re too busy wallowing in our own, quarantined on our couches, praying we don’t end up needing the services of a hospital ER, or worse yet, IC unit. 

We especially don’t want to think about what it’s like for those who have far less privilege than we do, not to mention those decades back in history and/or of a less privileged race or class.

And if you doubt that, just know that in the last months of 2020 we’ve had a record almost ONE HUNDRED holiday movies, 70% of which have aired in the last four weeks on either Hallmark and Lifetime, with nary a mention of any of the above.

… and let’s be honest – it’s a mostly WHITE christmas #bahhumbug

Not that there is anything wrong with that or them. 

In fact, there is every reason in these times for us to reach for peak, exceptional moments and characters played by actors who allow us to relax and feel like we’re in good hands for a couple of hours.

But this can also most particularly apply to any star actors who play any type of characters, and in the case of Ma Rainey you get two of the kind you don’t usually see in the above-mentioned 2020-type holiday movies.

Not that the likes of Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman would never deign to be in a holiday movie, even the Hallmark-Lifetime kind.  In fact, I’d bet that back in the day there could be a fun holiday story either of them might be lured into. 

… and c’mon, it’s fun!

However, that’s not what’s going on with the work they’re doing here. 

To say that each of them totally evaporates into Ma and Levee, subverting whatever star personas we associate with them, is too easy an analysis, true though it might be.

It’s more that each of them employs the script, direction and members of the technical team in a way that enables them to conjure up the actual sweat, smells and souls of who they are for our enjoyment. 

Watching these two onscreen it’s hard not to feel like they’re more alive, on film and in one-dimensional images, than we could ever be, prone on our sofas in what now amounts to real life.

The struggle is real

They make us want to be more alert, more alive, more responsive in real time to all of the real, and yeah, relatively privileged life around us by comparison, even during a pandemic.

Much has been made of the sad irony of Chadwick Boseman’s death earlier this year at the age of 43 and the incongruity of seeing him so unbelievably vital in the sequences of Ma Rainey.

But that sells short an actor with his abilities.

T’challa forever

For it’s partly in watching his character so energetically strive to get what he wants that makes whatever success and failures he has appear, well, irrelevant in the end.

Like all great stars, and like all great individuals, he reminds us it’s not about where we end up or are at any given moment but all the steps we’ve taken and have yet to take to get where we think we want to go.

That might not be a new feeling or original analysis but it’s enough to make you want to stand up and do something, anything, other than just watching, in dread, as 2020 draws to its inevitable close.

Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman – “Deep Moaning Blues”

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