The works talked about here, in this essay, will all attest to the title I chose for it. Read on to find out more.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM(2020)
A work like MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is not just another piece of social anthropology we need in our current point in history; it reimagines a day in the life of two individuals and their extended units without beautifying the blunt edges, the internalized bathos of the world around them and by giving pure truth to their frustrations and collective, intersecting histories.
I particularly appreciate the manner in which its director GEORGE C. WOLFE chooses to put it together as a compact narrative. So it begins with young kids running across the woods at night and at that moment, we sense danger tailing them owing to their place within a racially segregated society. But their flight is towards a destination that ultimately provides them soccour among their own: a canopy under which the legendary Mother of Blues and titular figure performs to an admiring community of fellow African-Americans. This happens in the notoriously testy terrain of the South.
Shortly thereafter, newspaper clippings about the passage to Northern states of Southern African-Americans, with lofty promises of hope, employment and identity covers the screens. As the day wears on, trains passing by punctuate the soundtrack and appear visually to chart a commonplace legacy of people in Chicago, one among the same promised lands which houses the recording session pivotal to this script. Two men from Ma’s entourage eventually enter a store to buy her Coca Cola bottles but filled as it is with just ‘white men’ and they all freeze upon seeing both, the musicians have to make wordless exits. That’s why this adaptation of an August Wilson play is so not commonplace; these little details and their unobtrusive placements in the screenplay mattered to me greatly as I watched it last week.
Of course, the dialogues, natural and avoiding neat grandiosity of language, sing, with a certain rhythm and bounce in crucial exchanges among cast members; helping to cement the theatrical interiority of locations and style but also maintaining the purpose that accommodates them together, seemingly blurring racial and class lines, only to reveal the jolts in their spirits.
This musicality is at the heart of its two towering lead portrayals. Viola Davis is inimitable as Ma, a lady confidently passing on her shine to her nervous, stuttering nephew, ensuring that belief ultimately rubs off on him after a dozen takes while recording her album. Then there’s the late, great Chadwick Boseman as Levee ( his name itself anticipating great turning points for his extroverted energy and optimism) burnishing their intertwined souls with the weight of their personal and inherited communal history. They are almost mirror images and it’s ironic then that while Ma holds reins as a rare woman of colour in the very early years of the 20th century, Levee is a marginal figure, delivering a power-packed monologue at half-point to verbalize a painful journey that monetizes and exploits the pain of hidden figures. All the other actors occupying this lean roster of performers rise to the occasion.
The end point is hence devastating as Levee suffers a mental breakdown that was always signalled by his fierce determination cloaking an already dead-weight spirit while Ma, away from that specific scenario, looks on while in the car, straight at us or maybe nowhere in particular, knowing that all the patronizing from her white manager or her own legend isn’t up to any good in the long run. Then an all-white male studio ensemble records Levee’s original composition and the screen fades to black. The choice to end MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM with that image becomes all the more reasonable as we ourselves, in 2021, reach the fag end of a regime that has revived racist fiats and a continuum of such historical betrayals overwhelms the discourse. Racism informs the bitterness in the leads here and makes a case for lost profusion of hope, in a country with no real rationale for diversifying its stance.
It is the reason why this work is so important for all discerning viewers as through the construction of a real life figure, it only threads our present era.
ALEX HALEY’S QUEEN, EPISODE 1( A 1993 3 PART MINISERIES)
I’m fortunate enough to have discovered this underrated, Halle Berry fronted miniseries from her early career on YouTube. As her great admirer, I thought it gives credence to her own personal history as an African-American personality by tracing the roots of her community through the 19th Century and beyond.
Based on legendary ROOTS writer Alex Haley’s paternal family history, QUEEN, in its first of three episodes, is an amalgam of emotions, socio-political grounding in facts in pre-Civil War era antebellum South and most of all the personal affinities that each person is bound to. A sense of humanity is sought after but so are accumulated heirlooms of racism and harsh statutes. Looked at in retrospect, it will be probed and must be in our current climate but we have to look at it as a document of the ways and mores that governed these lives, most of which were beyond their control and ruled by laws written down in paper.
I surely got GONE WITH THE WIND vibes from it and the sequences are designed in that old-fashioned, competent, fluid mode, registering their impact with every beat in the one hour, thirty five minute first capsule. Epic is one word that comes to mind and the cast boasts of stellar names as JASMINE GUY, ANN MARGRET, MARTIN SHEEN, TIM DALY, JANE KRAKOWSKI, PATRICIA CLARKSON, WALTON GOGGINS and the always adorable RAVEN SYMONE in an early role besides of course Ms. Berry.
I’ll share thoughts on the other remaining two capsules too as I watch them. For now, make sure to watch this generational saga that puts a family’s fortunes and the lack of them in the post Civil War epoch in perspective, paving way for Queen’s personal evolution consistent with a nation’s and her own community’s standing within a divided society.
CRIES AND WHISPERS(1972), THE SEVENTH SEAL(1957)
Continuing my fascinating tryst with Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, I finally watched the achingly tragic and hauntingly melancholic CRIES AND WHISPERS. It’s shot with the same sense of stifling repression and physical infirmity that Harriet Anderson brings to her central performance, as one of three sisters suffering from a debilitating condition that leads to excruciating pain. Her commitment to embodying her states of unrest and selective moments of calm hold the key to the emotional structure of this mostly internalized chamber piece. It’s not fair to say this given the film’s nature but Ms. Anderson actually transcends her physicality with her on-screen presence, almost akin to spiritual disrepair waiting for absolution and release from mortal life. With death, we say, comes a certain calm and she attests to that.
Cinematographer Sven Nykvist gives the sibling dynamic here its technical expertise with his tones and colour scheme while Bergman ensures the individual pieces of disintegration and distance become clear courtesy Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin’s performances. Apart from them, Kari Sylwan is almost angelic as she harbours a pristine love for Harriet that breaks boundaries yet is contingent with the situation, for humanity’s sake. Her status as housekeeper and an emotional anchor becomes the other defining feature of her complex choices. Her fount of love comes naturally to her, if you ask me.
CRIES AND WHISPERS, for me, is pitched between pleasure and pain, light and darkness, shadows and mirrors as the ladies’ faces are framed in hazy close-ups, like episodic stills preceding their individual moments. With the final shot, a serene joy illuminates the repository of these interconnected lives, with memory serving them well with possibilities of what once was and could have been. We can’t escape fate and it bows out with that bittersweet realization.
THE SEVENTH SEAL was sitting on the back of my watchlist for months and boy, did it surprise me with its levity, emotional flexibility, fluid fade ins and fade outs and the way in which the whole cast comes together as one unit. It is one of the earliest as well as the most accessible of all Bergman films, a pastiche of filmmaking of the classic era at its finest and made with such love and care that its mythmaking story concerning a medieval knight(Max Von Sydow) and his game of chess with Death( Bengt Ekerot) becomes interesting while remaining a period piece. But without its genre restrictions. It’s an allegory, a parable, a fairy tale and legend rolled into one.
You can sense the camaraderie among the performers and though Bergman is known for a career that particularly acknowledges heavy-duty emotional relationships, THE SEVENTH SEAL has a charm and a humour about its supposedly dark subject matter centring on the inevitability of death. At the end, it triumphs because it puts a smile on your face and an afterglow of positivity. GUNNAR BJORNSTRAND, BIBI ANDERSSON, NILS POPPE all come up with carefully balanced portrayals. This is now among my all-time favourites and seriously has a pan-family appeal.