Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage
Directed by George C. Wolfe, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is based on the play of the same name, by August Wilson, who was often referred to as the ‘theater’s poet of Black America.’ The eponymous play was first staged in 1982. The film focuses on Ma Rainey, a real life blues singer and her group of blues musicians, coming together to record a few songs on a hot summer’s day in Chicago in 1927. Produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black, and Dany Wolf, the film stars Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige and Dusan Brown in supporting roles. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is currently streaming on Netflix.
The film takes place over the course of a single, extremely hot day in Chicago, in 1927. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the ‘Mother of the Blues’ is set to record a new album at a recording studio run by two white executives. Tensions run high with the band as they wait for the arrival of their leading lady, in a cramped room. The older and more experienced members of the band, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), disapprove of the young and ambitious, but impatient trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who dreams of leading his own band and playing his own songs someday. Ma Rainey’s arrival with her entourage adds more heat to the already simmering studio.
The movie is symbolic of the African-American experience in the early 20th century. The film is surrounded by blues music, which originated with African-American people in the late 1800s when they were liberated from slavery. The blues tell their own story, chronicling the lives and experiences of the African-American community, making sure their legacies weren’t forgotten with time. When the real Ma Rainey left her hometown and headed north to record her music, it was a defining moment for the community. With a growing African-American community, white-owned record companies were quick to target the new market with their own ‘race records.’ August Wilson was keen on depicting how ‘race records’ exploited African-American artistes through his writings that were transferred to the film effectively, using Ma Rainey’s character. Another defining aspect of Wilson’s brilliance is that he examined and interpreted African-American experiences, by tapping into their daily lives, which is portrayed on the film as well. Their vulnerabilities, their strengths, moments of happiness and fierceness are embraced by the outstanding cast.
While on the surface the film just shows a few blues musicians coming in to record a few songs, underneath the characters discuss themes of social injustice that still echo in society to this day. For example, in the case of Ma Rainey, she is in charge of her destiny in the south, but up in the north she has to constantly negotiate her way through a white power structure, manifested through Ma Rainey’s manager Irvin and producer Sturdyvant, who constantly try to lay down the law as to which songs are recorded and in what order. To her Chicago was not the land of opportunity, in contrast to Levee’s character, who sees an opportunity to make his way up the ladder.
The brilliant mind of the director is portrayed through the many symbols he leaves for the audience. In an interview behind-the-scenes, the director explains the reason for setting the film on an extremely hot day. ‘In an urban environment, the concrete doesn’t absorb the heat, the only place the heat goes is inside the human body. So the intensity of what every single character is going through, their need for release, their need to conquer and come out on top was magnified by the intensity of the sun.’ Another symbol is where Levee manages to kick open a locked door and find himself faced by a wall. The director explains that Levee’s character is looking for everything he was promised, when he came to the north, but the wall signifies racism in America, and that no matter what one is promised, it’s impossible to achieve it.
Looking at the characters, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ puts greater spotlight on Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, although the entire ensemble does their part in contributing to the story. Going back to Davis’s Ma and Boseman’s Levee, the two characters are polar opposites. Levee’s character depicts the emerging new culture, one that was hip, fresh and young, while Ma Rainey’s character is a veteran, experienced enough to know the ways of the white community. She constantly ensures that she is in charge, which portrays both her vulnerable and indomitable spirit. Ma Rainey’s unwavering ownership of her talent is why she is seen as a demanding and brash individual. She believed in getting respect for her gift of singing. She also doesn’t stick to social norms that define how a woman should act, which Viola Davis manifests with fiery eyes and battered makeup. Ma Rainey was a powerful and defiant woman, from her actions to the very blues she sang and Oscar winner Viola Davis successfully channels Ma Rainey to life.
On the other hand, Levee the fleet-footed hustler is exploring his way through a world with a smile that hides anger. With a tragic backstory, Levee is determined to make his mark on the world. It’s the 1920s and his ambitious but impatient nature is a cocktail for failure. Furthermore, his character and identity is grounded or shaped in the world of music and when that is taken away, Levee ceases to exist. Boseman delivers an extraordinary performance and truly manifests the deep and frightening role of Levee. According to his costars, Boseman even learned to play the trumpet for the movie. It’s difficult not to feel heartbroken while watching the film and seeing Boseman giving his full potential to Levee’s character. Both Davis and Boseman provide powerhouse performances. Supporting roles played by Domingo, Potts, Turman, Dusan Brown as Ma Rainey’s nephew Sylvester and Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae, Ma Rainey’s girlfriend, all leave their individual marks in the story.
The cast and crew were able to capture the intense racial tensions and the look and feel of Chicago in 1927, and bring Ma Rainey’s story to focus, just like Wilson intended. Although the film is a single location story and may seem more theatrical, the fierce characters with their rhythmic dialogues and monologues keep the film from feeling too trapped and the characters give audiences a full spectrum of human emotion to witness. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a winner and a heartbreaking tribute to the talented Chadwick Boseman.
UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION
By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake
A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.
According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.
People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.
We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.
Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.
Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.
The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.
The way forward
If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.
(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)
HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?
It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.
Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:
“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”
My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:
“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.
“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.
“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.
The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:
“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”
the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.
Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!
ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one.
By Ian Buruma
One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.
But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.
America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’
As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.
Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.
But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.
Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.
Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.
The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).
Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.
Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.
Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.
This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.
(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)
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