- “Creating a visual landscape and seducing the audience”Naturalist Engagement in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
My point of departure for this discussion is two questions posed by Gregory Phipps: first, “in what ways are current developments in digital technology and televisual culture recasting the production of naturalist narratives?” and second, “[w]hich films, television shows, and computer games also display naturalist influences?” (viii). Naturalist critics have offered compelling answers to these questions. Klaus Schmidt has provided a veritable cornucopia of films that engage with various naturalist themes, and he calls upon “scholars willing to engage in detective or translation work in order to identify neonaturalist strategies” within this genre (39). Alan Gibbs takes up that call and, in his analysis of naturalism in Dexter, argues that the “central components of naturalism— notably determinism— are inconsistently integrated into the program’s narrative structure and thematic concerns” (211). More recently, Lee Schweninger discusses naturalism in Reservation Dogs. He argues that the “series shares some characteristics common to literary naturalism and perhaps neonaturalism in film” (70) and observes that “the four teenagers [who occupy this series] clearly have a sense of helplessness in the face of some indefinable, ineffably mechanical, deterministic world” (70).
These critics have discovered naturalism’s thematic concerns in these television series, yet, as I ponder this connection between naturalism and film/television, I am struck by the notion of the visual and the ways in which filmic techniques and devices can express traditional naturalist concerns. More specifically, this essay explores how the creative decisions being made by costume designers, directors, and cinematographers can offer a path to explore naturalism in televisual culture. Ma Rainey’s Black [End Page 126] Bottom, a Netflix film released in 2020, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green, provides an opportunity to explore such visual expressions of naturalism. Adapted from August Wilson’s play by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film takes place on a steamy summer day in Chicago, 1927. It chronicles what happens when Ma Rainey, her band, and music industry executives come together for a recording session. What should have been a routine day in the studio exposes pain and trauma, releases passion and fury, and culminates in tragedy.
When adapting Wilson’s original two-hour play to a ninety-four-minute film format, Santiago-Hudson endeavored to remain faithful to Wilson’s story, and he has affirmed that he “was trying to protect” Wilson’s work even as he transformed it for the screen (Cole). Explaining his process, Santiago-Hudson remarks, “[i]f I’m going to remove something that made August incredible—his language—what do I replace it with? I replace it with pictures” (Cox). Because the “pictures” that Santiago-Hudson added enhance the naturalist themes already present in the play, many of the observations made by critics about the original text are likewise relevant to the film. For example, Robert M. Dowling has acknowledged August Wilson’s place within the naturalist canon, identifying the playwright as a member of “the next gifted generation” of dramatists who “pushed forward with their forbears’ exploration of ‘the inscrutable forces behind life’” (441). Sandra G. Shannon does not specifically identify Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as a work of naturalism; nonetheless, she notes the “oppressive forces” (“The Long” 136) at work in the play and acknowledges that the characters “have little or no control in determining the course of their professional lives” (“The Long” 144). And Çiğdem Üsekes recognizes that “property or capital bestows power on whites in American society,” which makes it possible for them to “determine the course of other people’s lives” (116). Although these critics have acknowledged the deterministic forces present in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, no one has, as of this writing, offered an extended analysis of the play (or the film) as a work of naturalism.
The film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the same is true for the play, is a work of literary naturalism and should be studied as such. It features downtrodden characters who are driven by internal and...