Why (and How) August Wilson Marginalized White Antagonism: A Note for Hollywood Producers

April 12, 2021   •   By Miles P. Grier

THE LATE CHADWICK BOSEMAN has now been awarded a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Levee in the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). The Oscars seem poised to honor this, his final onscreen work, next. Boseman’s character is mythic, a sort of trumpet-playing Stagger Lee. In his first appearance, he confidently eyes a woman backstage then steps into the spotlight to blast a virtuosic solo. Later, he answers another musician’s charge that he is a shuffling Uncle Tom by baring his chest to show a childhood scar he got fighting Klan members who raped his mother. He ends that scene waving a blade at one of his bandmates and challenging even God to a knife fight.


The film faithfully reproduces this segment of August Wilson’s 1982 script for the stage but disregards details that would detract from the mythology. Wilson informs us immediately, before Levee has said a word, that the man can’t play trumpet. According to his stage directions, Levee “plays wrong notes frequently. He often gets his skill and his talent confused with each other.” Wilson’s character is more layered than the superhero of the Netflix film, who excels at all things and aims a blade at God.


Ma Rainey and the 2016 film Fences are the first offerings of a promised 10 spearheaded by executive producer Denzel Washington. So far, the films have preserved much of Wilson’s blues-inspired dialogue for their casts of Black Hollywood royalty. Yet choices like erasing Levee’s incomplete grasp of his instrument stray from Wilson’s project in placing white antagonism center stage. Levee is reduced to a man who faced down the Klan and, later, has his music stolen by a white record executive. His concurrent battle with his impatience, poor discipline, and self-delusion fall by the wayside.


I have no doubt that actors as talented as Boseman and Viola Davis (who stars as Rainey) could play the characters Wilson wrote, who confront antagonists both internal and external with wisdom, grit, and guile — who succeed or fail with no contradiction between their humanity and their Blackness. However, the Rainey film avoids the psychic dimension of Wilson’s characterization and restricts his rich Black characters almost entirely to a single dimension of life — the struggle against white antagonism.


Therefore, if the Oscars honor Boseman or Davis, they will award something less than these actors can (or could) do and something less than what August Wilson achieved. As pleasing as it is to see them taking star turns uttering Wilson’s famous blues-drenched soliloquies, and as good as it is to know that Black actors and creatives were employed (and will be for the next eight films), I hope for something more. It is still possible to revive Wilson’s characters and his visionary impulses. A closer look at the differences between his play and the Netflix film will help to do just that.


In presenting Black life primarily as a series of tangles with white antagonists, the films have missed that Wilson found conflict with white people relatively boring. He found the other business that Black people have with the universe far more interesting for ethical, aesthetic, and political rumination. His inquiry into that other business is the beating heart of his corpus of plays.


There were, of course, temptations to set aside his experiments in dramatizing Black lives. After all, Wilson rose to prominence when it was still common for critics to say that any work firmly situated in a recognizable African America was too historically specific (and too culturally obscure) to belong in supposedly transcendent categories such as American or human.


Wilson recalled that, after he had won two Pulitzer Prizes, a critic inquired when the playwright would broaden his subject matter. The critic suggested that Wilson should broaden his canvas since his first four plays had “exhausted the [B]lack experience.” Wilson stood firm in the face of the condescension: “My goal was to prove [that African American life] was inexhaustible.”


Wilson made up his mind that his plays would demonstrate that “there was no idea that couldn’t be contained by [B]lack life.” This was a claim that, no matter what restrictions white people had put on Black people’s social and economic mobility, Black life retained an inexhaustible intellectual richness. Wilson created space for the philosophical capaciousness of Black life by avoiding the trap of defining Blackness simply as the story of opposition to white people’s quest to maintain their prerogatives. In Wilson, Blackness designates the specificity of a historical predicament in the United States and the cultural toolkit available to face that predicament. In short, to be Black is one way of being human.


He did not wish away the undeniable historical facts of our unpleasant sojourn in this inhospitable land, nor did he reduce our stories to those facts alone. His plays operate according to the wonderful concurrent logic of meanwhile: White people are doing what they do, meanwhile …


A decade earlier, one of Wilson’s kindred spirits, novelist Toni Morrison, depicted a Black community making their lives in the meanwhile. In Sula, she describes an unspoken agreement among residents of a Black neighborhood in small-town Ohio: “The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance.” Imagine the wicked enjoyment Morrison must have had in putting white people on a list with natural and manmade disasters, inconveniences, setbacks, survivable calamities. August Wilson would have gotten the joke.


Yet these were not merely one-liners for Morrison or Wilson. Wilson, Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Marlon Riggs, Julie Dash were among a cohort of emergent artists in the 1970s and ’80s who mined the meanwhile for signs of Black life. All were searching for the places, if nowhere else than in the imagination, where what white people do isn’t supremely important. The glorious result was an art that was rooted in US history — and, therefore, intellectually useful for African descendants living in the wreckage of the vaunted American Century. Yet its historical awareness rarely cramped its imaginative vision of the aspects of Black life that are not lived in relation to white people, first and foremost. In the midst of narratives in which Black people come into existence for the sole purpose of confronting white racism, Wilson and his cohort were on the hunt for signs of intelligent, autonomous Black life. White people existed only at the margins of the work.


Take Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Although the play makes mention of the Klan and offers bit parts to white police and record executives, at the outset Wilson establishes time as the play’s supreme, though unseen, antagonist. He writes: “It is early March in Chicago, 1927. […] Winter has broken, but the wind coming off the lake does not carry the promise of spring.” Wilson has set the play in the season we associate with endings and death, with no hint of a vernal rebirth to come. In choosing the year 1927, he made canny use of his knowledge of the history of recorded music. In the very next year, 1928, Paramount Records would refuse to renew the real Rainey’s contract. In the play, Wilson imagines that the label wants her to update her sound to counteract dropping sales numbers. She not only refuses to incorporate new styles, she doubles down on an already old-timey jug-band sound.


The conflict in Wilson’s play concerns how Ma Rainey and the members of her band and entourage deal with winter in Chicago and all that it entails: the passage of time, the changing of musical styles, and migration from Georgia to an atmosphere that is colder in every sense. The piano player strikes the keynote in a wonderful monologue in which he describes change as ubiquitous, perpetual, and largely invisible. “Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change. You got, monoxide, hydrogen … changing all the time. Skin changing … different molecules and everything.” The trumpeter responds, “Nigger, what is you talking about? […] I’m talking about something I can see!” The pianist is trying to tune our ears to what Ralph Ellison called the “lower frequencies” — to alert us that beneath the apparent conflict with white people invisible forces like time move and shape the players.


Coming to Paramount recording studios for what will be one of her last sessions, Wilson’s title character has arrived at a befuddling present. Times have changed on the Mother of the Blues in a fundamental, but not total, way. The hero confronts this nemesis by imposing her indomitable will: a conspicuous, unexplained late arrival to the recording session, delaying the work by demanding sandwiches and cokes, forcing the renegotiation of prior agreements about repertoire and musical arrangements. These acts are spectacular assertions of her authority over male rivals in her band and in the recording industry. But, on the lower frequencies, she is trying to bring time under her control.


Knowing what has been revealed about the music industry’s exploitative tendencies, most audiences are primed to root for musicians against businessmen, and for blueswomen against anybody. Yet Wilson does not give us a simple situation in which Ma Rainey is always and only under the heel of the man. Yes, Rainey has an upstart band member who thinks he can rearrange her songs and romance her girlfriend. Yes, the white record executives are going to reap the lion’s share of the profits from a music they can neither make nor, Rainey insists, even fathom. However, it is also true that these men do not determine — cannot determine — all of her choices.


Rainey has options for responding to this moment in the winter of her career. She could rein in her attempts to control time. She could consider how expanding her stylistic range might offset the apparent loss of vocal range I discovered listening to recordings across the span of her career. [1]


One final option Wilson offers: Rainey could foster the growth of the headstrong trumpeter, Levee. Considering that Rainey devotes considerable time to getting her stuttering nephew to record a spoken intro to the play’s title song — to everyone’s consternation — she is clearly capable of patient coaching when it suits her desire to control people and time. In other words, she knows how to be motherly, while simultaneously insisting on her prerogatives as Mother of the Blues. Levee is not her family, in the strict sense, but Wilson is clearly drawing a parallel between the nephew’s misplaced syllables and the trumpeter’s ill-chosen notes. He wants us to imagine “Ma” Rainey and these younger men forming a musical family of choice.


But Wilson’s character has no interest in her maternal nickname, insisting that her manager call her Madame Rainey, instead of downhome “Ma.” Consequently, she passes on no knowledge to her musical son, Levee and, instead, fires him from her band when his hubris and her disinterest in mentoring him collide. Consequently, he ends the play vulnerable to the very economic exploitation from white businessmen that Rainey so shrewdly evades. And, in the year to come (long after the play’s conclusion), she ends up without a contract because she would not incorporate the new music he was writing.


In Ma Rainey, Wilson gives us a lioness in winter, caged and lashing out with diva stunts worthy of Sunset Boulevard: I still have fans! My old-style, jug band music is still big, it’s the white man’s recording industry that got small. Compared to this rich nexus of theatrical conflicts, the Netflix film is a cored apple. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) hollows out the play’s nucleus and gives us a palette that seems most inspired by the sweltering heat and red bricks of Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing (1989). Although it faithfully preserves the language of the play’s famous monologues, this cinematic adaptation lacks the rich psychological, interpersonal, and sociohistorical forces that both Wilson and Lee were able to bring to bear.


There is no trace of the desolate winter of 1927 in the Netflix film — not a faded poster or peeling promotion for Rainey’s first sides. Viola Davis’s Rainey appears as the Blues Queen of her era. The soundscape reinforces this false idea of a single Black musical culture with Rainey as its absolute monarch. There is no sense of the stylistic variety offered by the women who got into recording studios before Rainey, despite being her disciples in the genre. Since the film takes time to establish Rainey as the blues diva in an opening concert sequence that Wilson never wrote, they could as easily have had the sounds of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, or Alberta Hunter haunting the session. Imagine if the voice of Ethel Waters singing “Take Your Black Bottom Outside” opened or closed the film. Waters’s 1927 recording is ostensibly directed at a dancing man, but it certainly sounds like she’s also taking aim at Rainey, whose signature song gives the play and film their title. In addition, they could have allowed Ma Rainey’s still-powerful but diminished voice to be heard during the session, instead of having Davis lip-synch to Maxayn Lewis, a veteran blues singer with a full-throated shout that Rainey couldn’t equal in 1927.


After simplifying the landscape of Black popular music, the film reduces the complex interpersonal conflicts Wilson painstakingly created to a dominant one: Black blues musicians versus white people — the Klan, the police, managers, and record executives. Of course, Wilson did not exclude the historical facts of economic exploitation, police surveillance, and white supremacist terrorism from his play. Yet, even as he acknowledged those forces, Wilson saw that Black life could not be reduced to that antagonism. His was a revolutionary choice, one so subtle that many critics — including Black people — miss it. (Hannah Giorgis’s review in The Atlantic focuses solely on white racism, occluding the other currents that Wilson drew into this explosive recording session.)


Wilson set his plays in the midst of African American history, much of which is shaped by white Americans’ struggle to retain privileges accrued during slavery and Jim Crow in the face of Black resistance and international disapproval. He gave his characters the rich and expanding trove of resources that displaced Africans have devised for surviving here: blues, animal fables, toasting, boasting, wit, and even lying. While Wilson’s characters are in a historical stream set in motion by white supremacy, their lives are never consumed by it alone. Wilson achieved something amazing: he let Black characters have their fears about aging, their insecurities about their lovers, and their ambitions for stardom — all in the midst of the ongoing permutations of American apartheid.


One way he cleared space for these conflicts on the “lower frequencies” was to avoid courtroom scenes, the indispensable set pieces of narratives designed to convict white people. Think Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Time to Kill.


Now, this is not to say that Wilson was a nascent Black Republican: he did not pretend that Black people could all enjoy the American Dream but for poor character born of a dysfunctional culture. Quite the contrary. Wilson determined that the evidence of what white people have done to accrue and maintain their prerogatives is beyond dispute. At the same time, he observed that no court has yet passed sentence or ordered restitution — and predicted that none is likely to do so in the future.


Therefore, his plays treat the capricious evils done in the name of white authority as akin to weather or topography. A wise person accepts them as features of reality beyond her control and focuses on what she (alone or in concert with others) can do to live with or maneuver around forces that are beyond petitioning. Call it the Black Serenity Prayer. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept that I cannot change white people’s hearts, minds, or deeds.”


That is what is missing from Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: a sense that the Black people who are in it might be able to use their intelligence and creativity to improvise a collective response to the exploitative, segregated music industry. In Wilson’s play, the subtle tragedy — nearly invisible — is that, but for their egos, this room full of talented Black people might have been able to work together to extend Ma Rainey’s career and secure time for Levee’s skills to blossom. Instead, they cause each other great pain and end up more exposed to the predations of the record business and even the carceral system.


In the film, Rainey ends the story triumphant, ready to be dipped in wax for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History as our first dark-skinned Black lesbian hero. Levee, too, is ready for museum display. After the film omits that the trumpeter needs to work on his chops, he becomes the prototypical victim of stylistic appropriation by white businessmen and performers. The white characters are transformed from a backdrop to the most important obstacles to Black success, and the Black characters defined primarily by the outcomes of their interactions with white people. But that is not the Wilsonian way.


Wilson was not didactic enough to give a simple set of directions for how Black people could survive and thrive here in the American desert. Yet he was able to intimate the consequences for those who do not at least attempt a collective response. The goal here is neither to exonerate nor convict white people. It is to isolate, in our own minds, the parts of life over which we do have power. The playwright John Guare put it this way in Six Degrees of Separation, when one character observes that everything is someone else’s: “Not your children. Not your life.”


Wilson’s mission was not to construct anything so simple as a hall of wax figures. His point was not to celebrate our heroes whom white people restricted to segregated and underpaid fields like “race records” and the Negro Leagues. Wilson’s goal was to create “art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of [B]lack America by designing its strategies for survival and prosperity.” These words may sound close to the celebration of heroes, but a closer look reveals a different aim. He says that he wants to celebrate not standout figures but rather the life of the collective “[B]lack America.”


Let there be no confusion: that celebration is not an awards ceremony. With apologies to #Oscarssowhite, the success of his project does not depend on whether white-dominant institutions select Black people for honors. Even reciting our heroes’ achievements at Black awards shows is not enough.


Wilson’s plays suggest that revisiting our forebears should offer valuable opportunities for “reclaiming and reexamining the purpose and pillars of our art.” Storytelling offers us the occasion to reconsider what the triumphs and errors of our predecessors might have to say to us in changing times. Taking cues from ancient African arts, Wilson created a theater that is not separate from life but has a living purpose; it must be useful to us now and not only an object of retrospective nostalgia. The usefulness of his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that it does not allow the lower frequencies of Black life to be crowded out by white money or white terrorism. In the midst of all that trouble, meanwhile … a Blues Queen wants to hold back time and an unseasoned horn player wants to hurry it along. Wilson wasn’t writing “profiles in courage,” starring wax figures who defeated white people. He gave us people who struggled mightily against cosmic forces, and who give us as much to ponder when they succeed as when they fail.


It’s worth noting that Wilson seems to have sensed that audiences were fixated on the overt battles with white antagonists, which is why no white people appear in either of his next mature plays, Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990). Whatever negotiations the Black characters have with white people occur offstage, and Wilson’s imagined Black audience is able to focus on a world in which the only decisions that matter — the only ones that can hurt or heal — are made by Black people. They get to hear everything, from a drunken song improvised to celebrate payday to wrong notes sputtered from a trumpet.


The films made in Wilson’s name should preserve this emphasis, not just to honor his intentions but to retain what is useful about his body of work. They create a world in which Black people contend with powerful unseen forces in the course of their everyday lives. In this world, nothing a white man can dish out compares to the cold of March 1927. Yet, in a trove of cultural resources, Black Americans have the tools to fight valiantly against the meanest antagonists imaginable: the past, self-deception, guilt, and death itself. 


Denzel Washington and his collaborators have eight more chances to place conflict with white people on the lower frequencies and allow tremendously talented Black actors to keep their appointments with the awesome antagonists that life can produce.


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Miles P. Grier is an assistant professor of English at Queens College, CUNY.


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[1] Any informed understanding of Wilson’s characterization of Rainey should begin with a comparison of her 1923 and 1927 recordings of “Moonshine Blues.” In the play, Rainey flatly refuses to rerecord this barn burner from her first recording sessions. The 1927 recording shows the historical Rainey lowering the key and singing in a much narrower range to compensate for some vocal decline.