“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson says adapting August Wilson’s words to the screen was about more than just making a movie. Wilson is one of the great playwrights who has consistently captured the pulse of Black life in America, and any film adaptation had to do that experience justice.
“As a writer the work means so much to me,” Santiago-Hudson says in an exclusive video feature titled “Standing on the Shoulders of August,” shared with TheWrap. “It’s not just a movie that we’re making. It’s a way of Black life and the culture of this place we call America.”
Though Santiago-Hudson is best known as an actor, director George C. Wolfe says Santiago-Hudson “adores August’s writing.” And though he previously wrote the script for Wolfe’s TV movie “Lackawanna Blues” from 2005, for which he was nominated for an Emmy, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is his first feature film credit. Everyone involved agrees he was up for the challenge.
“Great material lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, and it’s just a chance to touch the sleeve of greatness,” producer Denzel Washington said of the film’s script.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is inspired by the life of “The Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey, who as portrayed by Viola Davis is in Chicago to record an album but constantly comes at odds with her hot-shot trumpet player (the late Chadwick Boseman) and a management team that just wishes she would get things over with.
The dialogue at times moves briskly, and Davis even described the script as having a musical quality to it.
“The language is like music, so what you’re seeing is sort of a musical piece,” she said.
“What we find are these moments where the dialogue just pops, and it does crackle,” co-star Colman Domingo added.
And naturally the film grapples not just with the egos of its characters but with how Black voices are kept subdued and often appropriated, not just in 1920s Chicago but up through today.
“The art is of a song of immortality that is going to last forever,” Santiago-Hudson said. “It pushes the film into what exactly is happening in our world today.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was nominated for two Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the film is available on Netflix now. Watch the exclusive video clip above.