I hated my first pair of shoes, some bulbous Buster Browns that looked exactly like their name—busted and brown. I horned my feet into the distressed copper-colored leather every Sunday for church adding to the reasons I hated going. But years later, I got sweet feet redemption when my father bought me a pair of Clarks desert boots. For a ‘70s baby growing up in the early 1980s New York City, those shoes were like a KITH Nike drop today, revered amongst the older kids, like my pre-teen cousin who I wanted to impress very badly. It was a rare moment when my fiscally conservative father’s taste aligned with what was “cool” and my fashion choices wouldn’t make me a pariah on my block. Even though they were a half-size too big (to account for my rapidly growing feet), I walked in them with my head held high and soaked in the gasps of approval when I stepped outside.
It’s why I felt seen when Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opens with the precocious cornet player named Levee (played by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final onscreen performance) pining over a pair of butterscotch yellow leather shoes in a store window. In the screen adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, viewers are taken through a day in the life of pioneering singer Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” as she and her band of merry men record some of her hit songs for a pair of white Chicago producers looking to cash in on her fame. Viola Davis is the no-nonsense Rainey, who is joined by Colman Domingo as her right-hand man Cutler, Glynn Turman as elder statesman Toledo, Michael Potts as the unflappable Slow Drag, and Taylour Paige as Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae.
While the story and title place Rainey at the center of a 1920s galaxy, it is the gravity of Boseman’s Levee (and his distracting fixation on his new shoes) that threatens to pull her out of orbit. Unlike his name, there is nothing sedimentary or restrained about Levee. Ambitious and sharp, he isn’t interested in antiquated rules or traditions and wants to push the culture forward. But Ma has fought too hard against the forces of both sexism and racism to earn the right to do things her way and isn’t giving an inch to anyone, especially not a horn player who was probably playing hooky when her career started.
VIBE spoke with actors Domingo, Turman, and Paige about the dynamics of strong will and respect at the heart of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the undeniable power of a new pair of shoes.
VIBE: The two pillars of this film are Ma Rainey’s success and Levee’s aspirations to success, it’s the one thing they have in common (outside of a love of music). In your opinion, how does this film examine themes of progress and self-determination for Black Americans?
Colman Domingo: That’s a great question. Ma Rainey herself is a whole mood. It’s a whole mood that is really, truly set with the fact that she was an openly gay woman from the south in a very male environment of The Blues. And who was also fighting systemic racism. So you had such a pioneer and someone who was self-possessed, and you don’t even know where their self-possession came from. But you knew she knew what her talent was and her rigor was in demanding that her talent be respected in every single room with everyone she was in contact with.
Levee, on the other hand, is trying to find agency in the world. He’s so hungry for it. And in the confines of the world, the world is not set up yet for him—yet. But he is still a pioneer. He’s trying to break through these racist systems and trying to work the system. The one thing they both have in common is that they believe in their talent. And I also think that’s why there is friction. Ma is like, “This is Ma’s band. You fold yourself into this.” And herein lies the problem. Levee is eager and he’s ambitious and it’s that spirit of youth. Because they feel like they don’t have time, they have to do it quickly.
And in between them you have this character, Cutler, trying to balance that, the proxy to Ma when she’s not in the room. He’s the first face that the studio heads and white supremacist systems see when they enter a space. There’s huge navigation amongst all these major characters actually. They’re all going for it in some way and [others] say let’s just toe the line. And I think the great question is “Who is right?” and I think everyone is right and everyone’s wrong at the same time. Everyone’s their own hero and own villain.
Glynn Turman: They both have a sense of worth. They have a sense of what they deserve. Ma knows that her voice is gold for these men trying to capture it on this machine. She knows that’s worth something and she isn’t leaving until she gets her worth, down to the Coca-Cola. With that knowledge, she’s ready to raise all hell and take on all challengers. Levee knows he’s a man of worth with his knowledge of music. He knows he’s worth something for that.
Colman, I read in another interview where you called yourself a “research whore.” What did you do to develop Cutler as a character?
CD: My God, I researched everything. Whether it’s the history of The Blues or the area that Ma Rainey was from in Georgia or images. I love images from the time period because they tell you a lot about how a man stands, what his body language is. What his body language is like when he’s with other Black men and what it’s like when there are white people around. How does he sit in a chair? I researched fabrics, costumes, and reasons why you button the button here. Where it fits, how it sits. Because that helps you with every part of your body. I even went so far as to [ask] what does your character eat? I think your body should look different. I go that deep with my characters. I know I’m ten pounds heavier in that role. George was concerned that I looked too young when I showed up. I said don’t worry, I’ll get there. I knew I needed to eat like a southern boy. Cutler wasn’t working out. So I stopped working out and I start sitting at the table. I’m a character actor through and through so you want to know as much as you can to develop a fully realized human being. Then to make it look like you don’t see the work at all.
Glynn, you played Toledo in the stage version of the play. How did you go about adapting the character for the screen?
I did the play here at the Mark Taper Forum here in Los Angeles about two years ago. Denzel Washington came backstage after having seen the play and told me to stay ready. He was doing the motion picture of this production and all of August Wilson’s productions and that I should stand by for this one in particular to reroute this role. When Denzel Washington tells you to stand by and stay ready, you stand by and stay ready. So there I am. [Director] George C. Wolf brought a wonderful insight into the character that rejuvenated me. Nuances on ways to play this character.
August Wilson uses the shoes as a wick, a fuse that went through that whole story. As you’re watching, those shoes are on fire from the time Levee walks in the room.
Glynn Thurman (@glynnturman)
Taylour, your character Dussie Mae is caught between two of the most ambitious people in the film—Ma and Levee—but what does Dusse Mae want for herself?
Taylour Paige: Dussie is trying to survive and wants to be seen and have her presence be felt, to be loved and not be disposable. We’re in 2020 and just ten years ago, it was 2010 and we were only two years into having the first Black president of the United States. If you take it back to Ma Rainey and this period, if you think about ten years before that, some of us were just finding out we were free. Most of us can’t look one way without ending up hung or dead, falsely accused of some things. We’re direct descendants of these people or directly experienced these things. We all have deep, deep trauma. So I played Dussie like she was my ancestor. She’s a woman who saw a window of opportunity. I see how Ma Rainey gets down. I’m watching the band, I’m an engaged observer and maybe if I sit properly and swing my hips this way and I’m nice over here, maybe they’ll see that I’m just as important and I contribute to the energy here. Don’t I matter, too? Maybe next time she’ll ask me to do an intro to the song and they’ll realize they have to keep me on the songs because my voice is different. She’s an opportunist really looking for possibilities and some hope.
I remember that last scene when we get into the car and drive away. That was Viola’s last day but I remember feeling so heavy because I feel like I was mourning all the dreams that have been lost. All the people that don’t get to do what we do. Dreams down the drain. And that’s what I tapped into.
At the center of this struggle is a pair of shoes. Talk to me about why shoes are so important to us as Black men…
CD: You know why…
But I want to hear you talk about it.
CD: I remember when I was younger, about eight or nine years old, and my older brother took me to Florsheim’s. He said these are the shoes when you got some money. Because you can tell so much about a man because of his shoes. You got some clean shoes, you were respected. That’s why we spend so much money on sneakers these days. It’s still the same thing. If we don’t have a pot to piss in or one to throw out at least you can afford some good shoes. And even if the shoes were expensive, you saved up, you prayed over ‘em and looked at ‘em as you passed the store over and over and eventually you got those shoes. You wanted to keep those sneakers white, keep those shoes shined. They were your status. It’s very similar to your hat, your crown. The way you wear your crown tells the world who you are, especially as a Black man in the world. The world views Black men a certain way, but you feel your shoes can tell a whole different story. It can tell about your education, definitely shows about your status. Those represent so much so when they’re stepped on in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it wasn’t as simple as stepping on leather for Levee. You stepped on his whole being; his life, his dreams, his heart, his soul, his manhood. That’s what shoes represent and that’s why it’s so important. They still rep a lot to me. Still. I love to have a good pair of shoes. When you do there’s such pride with them. It’s what you walk around on.
GT: When I was a young man, you wanted to get enough money to buy a pair of shoes from Florsheim’s shoe shop. You stand in the window and look at those shoes through the glass and onto your feet. I got this from the uncles in the barbershop who would get their shoes shined in the barbershop. If you even don’t have a dime in your pocket with raggedy pair of pants, have on a pair of shined shoes and you’ll be alright. Keep your shoes shined. That’s always been a part of our culture and folklore.
August Wilson, knowing that, uses the shoes as a wick, a fuse that went through that whole story. As you’re watching, those shoes are on fire from the time Slow Drag steps on them first. From the time Levee walks in the room and lays them down and says, “Look what I got. I got new shoes.” Then Slow Drag steps on em and…(makes hiss sound). I remember being at parties at different clubs where somebody stepped on somebody’s shoes and the fight was on.
Dussie Mae asks Ma for some new shoes as well. What’s your take on their importance to Black folks, Taylour?
TP: Our shoes, I think a lot of us haven’t had. We ain’t have sh*t and yet…I think so much of all inspiration comes right back to us. Who is gonna want to wear these shoes and who is going to make them look good? You put one foot in front of the other even though everything is being done to keep you from moving forward. Our childhood gets stolen from us so soon and how childlike it is to say, “I got some new shoes.” It’s very pure. I’ve never been able to celebrate something as simple as a pair of new shoes. “Look how hard I worked. Don’t you see me? I worked really hard for these.” If I put the shoes on and they’re clean…I’m not in the fields anymore. Against all odds, I’m in the shoes.
Colman, your character Ali on HBO’s Euphoria is a man of faith, as is Cutler, but they have very different approaches. How do you think Ali would have counseled Levee?
What’s very interesting is I think that Ali would be a much better counselor to Levee than Cutler. Because Cutler is a bit more conservative with his ideology. And I think that’s based in his Christian faith. This is exactly what I believe in and this is how I build my life and my world and this is my world view. I think Ali, who is also a recovering addict, is a bit more gray. The fact that he became a Muslim because of certain practices that work for him, that helped him find his identity, helped him work through the world. Anyone who has read the Quran, there’s a lot of philosophy to it and I think that’s what draws a lot of brothers to Islam. I think that he would be able to receive Levee’s pain and pose questions. That’s something Ali does very well. He just throws questions at you. He’s not giving you answers but says, “perhaps it’s this.” Now Cutler doesn’t do that. “You can’t play like that.” He doesn’t offer up questions. Ali believes you have the power within yourself to be change.
Did Chadwick get to keep those shoes?
CD: I hope he did! I think those shoes will be in a museum someday. These big ole feet in those yellow shoes. George loved to highlight those shoes and have the camera right on ‘em. You see that big ole foot slam down. It was just great. And watching Chad come in with so much joy about them. He would come and put ‘em right in my face. Every single take from the rehearsal hall to when we were filming, he would put them right in my face with that sly smile of his.
GT: Young Mr. Boseman, I had not worked with before but had met on one or two occasions. He was just wonderful to work with. He has it. I will speak about him in the present tense. The “it” factor. He enjoyed and brought every bit of himself to his roles and this one was no different. He knew that this might be his last role, but we didn’t know that. And he didn’t approach it as if it would be his last. He approached it as [if to say] I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t. That’s what he did and I love him for it. He’s a real man of courage.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on December 18th on Netflix.