Jazz Onscreen, Depicted by Black Filmmakers at Last
Midway through “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the new Netflix drama based on August Wilson’s acclaimed stage play, the title character drifts into a monologue. “White folk don’t understand about the blues,” muses Rainey (Viola Davis), an innovator at the crossroads of blues and jazz with an unbending faith in her own expressive engine.
“They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” she says as she readies herself to record in a Chicago studio in 1927. “They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better, you sing because that’s your way of understanding life.”
Time seems to roll to a stop as Rainey speaks. The divide between her words and what white society is ready to hear lays itself out wide before us. That, you realize, is the fertile space where her music exists — an ungoverned territory, too filled with spirit, expression and abstention for politics and law to interfere.
But maybe this scene is only so startling because of how rare its kind has been throughout film history. The movies, with few exceptions, have hardly ever told the story of jazz through the lens of Black life.
Now, inexcusably late, that is beginning to change.
Piloted by the veteran theater director George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of three feature films released this holiday season that center on jazz and blues; all were made by Black directors or co-directors. The other two are New York City stories: “Sylvie’s Love,” by Eugene Ashe, a midcentury romance between a young jazz saxophonist and an up-and-coming TV producer, and “Soul,” a Pixar feature directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers that uses a pianist’s near-death experience to pry open questions about inspiration, compassion and how we all navigate life’s endless counterpoint between frustration and resilience.
The films present Black protagonists in bloom — musically, visually, thematically — giving these characters a dimensionality and a depth that reflects the music itself. It calls to mind Toni Morrison’s explanation for why she wrote “Jazz,” her 1992 novel: She wanted to explore the changes to African-American life wrought by the Great Migration — changes, she later wrote, “made abundantly clear in the music.”
The new films outrun many, though not all, of the issues dogging jazz movies past, which have historically done a better job contouring the limitations of the white gaze than showing where the music springs from or its power to transcend. White listening and patronage don’t really enter these new films’ narratives as anything other than a distraction or necessary inconvenience.
Earlier this year, the critic Kevin Whitehead published “Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film,” a survey of jazz’s long history on the silver screen. As he notes, jazz and cinema grew up together in the interwar period. But in those years and well beyond, Whitehead writes, the movies consistently whitewashed jazz history: “In film after film, African-Americans, who invented the music, get pushed to the margins when white characters don’t nudge them off screen altogether.”
It was true of “New Orleans,” a 1947 film starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday that was supposed to be about Armstrong’s rise but was rewritten, at the behest of its producers, to put a tale of white romance at the center. It was true of “Paris Blues,” a 1961 vehicle for Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, based on a novel about two jazz musicians’ interracial love affairs; that key element, however, was more or less erased in the screenplay. Ultimately the movie is about the struggle of Newman’s trombonist, Ram, to convince himself and others that jazz is worthy of his obsession. He insists that a career as an improvising musician requires such singular devotion that he won’t be able to sustain a relationship.
In the past few years, jazz has shown up onscreen most prominently in the work of Damien Chazelle. His “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) tell the stories of young white men who, like Ram, are torturously committed to playing jazz and the feeling of excellence it gives them. In these movies, jazz is a challenge and an albatross. But in “Sylvie’s Love,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Soul,” the music is more a salve: a river of possibility running through a hostile country, and — as Rainey says in Wilson’s script — simply the language of life.
“Whiplash” focuses on the relationship between a demonic music teacher (played by J.K. Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance) and his most committed young student, Andrew (Miles Teller), who is driven by the desire to become a master drummer. The film offers a glimpse into jazz’s current afterlife in conservatories, where students learn its language through charts and theoretical frameworks, but most teachers give little attention to the spiritual or social makings of the music. Here again, we come up against the slightly misogynistic — and deeply depressing — idea that devotion to the music can’t coexist with romantic love and care: Andrew’s dating conduct is disastrous, and he proudly explains that it’s because of the music.
“La La Land” follows a pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who’s a few years out of music school. At the start, he’s seen dyspeptically punching the tape deck in his convertible, trying to memorize the notes on a Thelonious Monk recording as if they’re times tables. He views himself as a guardian of jazz’s past glories, and he’s committed to opening a club that will preserve what’s often framed as “pure” jazz. It’s a cultural legacy that, as a fellow musician played by John Legend gently reminds him, has not exactly asked for his help — though that doesn’t deter him.
There’s a stark difference between these characters’ ways of relating to jazz and those of, say, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), the saxophonist in “Sylvie’s Love,” or Joe, the pianist in “Soul.” As Sylvie watches Robert play, she’s seeing him settle into himself deeply. There’s no gap between who he is on and offstage, except that he may be freer up there. Performing doesn’t become an unhealthy obsession; it’s life.
While “Sylvie’s Love” hinges on a “Paris Blues”-like tension between art and romance, the two are ultimately able to coexist. Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) and “Crooklyn” (1994) got halfway there, showing what it looks like for jazz musicians to have loving marriages. (Lee, whose father is a jazz musician, does not make it seem easy. But possible? Yes.) “Sylvie’s Love” takes that conflict and melts it away, as a great screen romance can.
On many levels, the most expansive and affecting of the new jazz films is “Soul.” A pianist and middle-school band teacher, Joe, is on the brink of death when his spirit sneaks into the Great Before, where uninitiated souls prepare to enter bodies upon birth. There he meets 22, a recalcitrant soul whom the powers that be have failed to coax into a human body.
In his classroom, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) preaches the glories of jazz improvisation, drawing on a true story that the famed pianist Jon Batiste, who ghosted the music that Joe plays, had told the movie’s director, Docter, and co-director, Powers. “This is the moment where I fell in love with jazz,” Joe says, recalling the first time he stepped into a jazz club as a kid. He caresses the piano keys as he speaks. “Listen to that!” he says. “See, the tune is just an excuse to bring out the you.”
After an accident lands Joe in intensive care and his soul drifts out of his body, he and 22 hatch a plan to get him back to life. All souls, he comes to find out, need a “spark” that will touch off their passion and guide them through life. He knows immediately that his is playing the piano. That, he says, is his purpose in life. But one of the spiritual guides-cum-counselors that populate the Great Before (all named Jerry) quickly sets him straight. “We don’t assign purposes,” this Jerry says. “Where did you get that idea? A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. Oh, you mentors and your passions — your ‘purposes,’ your meanings of life! So basic.”
Their conversation is left wonderfully open-ended. But the point becomes clear, subtle as it is: Above meaning, above purpose, above any means to an end, there’s just life. Which is to say, music.