The history of the Oscars has been made, again. For the second time only, two black women – Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) – were nominated for Best Actress that same year. The latter occurred in 1973 when Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) and Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues”) were in contention for the Oscar, only to lose to Liza Minnelli for her lead role in “Cabaret”. While we don’t know who will take home the Golden Statue on Sunday, there’s no denying that Davis and Day put on two of the most compelling performances of the year.
While it took nearly 50 years for Academy Award history to repeat itself, I hope these nominations indicate a more substantial change in Hollywood, an increase in the number of multidimensional roles offered to black actresses as well as more great recognition of their exceptional performance. by the academy. But my optimism is also tempered. Even as Hollywood changes, the way it tells the story of black female musicality is still lagging behind. Because while Davis and Day deserve to be congratulated for their exemplary work, their films emphasize the trauma and diminish the artistic genius of the icons they embody, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday.
In some ways, it’s a gender issue. Far too many films about music relegate the actual processes of music creation – songwriting and arrangements, studio sessions and group rehearsals, experimenting with sounds and honing crafts – to the background, preferring to focus on the psychological and social struggles that artists face.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday ”portray singers more as victims of their social situation than virtuosos, potentially overshadowing the contributions of two of the most innovative and influential American personalities to ever perform on stage.
Based on the August Wilson piece of the same title, “My Rainey’s Black Bottom” takes place in a single recording session in which Rainey, known in the 1920s as the Mother of Blues, s ‘strives to maintain artistic control and authority over her all-male man. group and production team, while avoiding its own worry that new phonograph technologies and the growing popularity of jazz are making it obsolete.
The film ends by validating some of Rainey’s concerns; a white band records the song instead of their own. But the other conflict remains unresolved: his battle with Levee (Chadwick Boseman), an ambitious cornet player, over the direction of their art. The white producer of Levee and Rainey revere his compositions as more sophisticated, modern and cosmopolitan than his blues (which Levee laughs at “jug-band music”), marking an important historical break: the moment when blues singers like Rainey , or later Bessie Smith, were seen as subordinates rather than precursors of virtuoso black jazz instrumentalists.
Likewise, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday ”doesn’t spend much time revealing what made Holiday’s style so original – its musical phrasing, soft timbre, intimate mic mastery on stage and in the studio – and so influential for artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Nina Simone. Instead, he reveled in Holiday’s addiction, his abusive male partners, and the lingering effects of rape at a young age.
“Billie Holiday was one of our most innovative artists,” Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of “If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: Finding Billie Holiday” told me. “Certainly, she needs some kind of innovative and experimental performance to tell her story. But, there is often a refusal of women artists, especially black women, to do this in the cinema. In fact, it is easier to talk about pathology.
The film apparently chronicles how the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” became so inseparable from Holiday’s career that she was under constant FBI surveillance. But you never really understand why it is his version that endures. “This song had a life before her, but the reason it rose to fame is that she is willing to sing it and perform it in a certain way,” Griffin said. The movie doesn’t fit into all of that, she noted, “and that’s where the courage lies, right?”
The tension between the personal trauma of black women and their musical talent is also at the root of much of the plot of the National Geographic television miniseries, “Genius: Aretha” (starring Cynthia Erivo) and the HBO documentary about Tina Turner, “Tina”. The themes of sexual assault and domestic violence are present in Aretha Franklin’s story. (“Genius” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” were written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.) But it is Franklin’s musical precocity, not his pain, that is at the root of this mini-series, its exceptional character and its vulnerability.
In the miniseries, her father, the famous Reverend CL Franklin, nurtures his daughter’s vocal dexterity and piano by taking her on the road, exposing her to her own brilliant preaching style and great singers from gospel like Clara Ward. But on tour, the minister is distracted by sex parties and often leaves his daughter helpless in the face of sexual advances from older men. In fact, Aretha Franklin has never publicly disclosed the details that led to her giving birth to her first child at 12, and a second at 15. In the miniseries, these pregnancies remain shrouded in silence and are mostly treated as events. may neither she nor her family linger as she continues to share her unparalleled musical gifts with the world.
At first, “Tina” walks in narrative territory similar to that of the 1993 biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (for which Angela Bassett was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress). The first half of this documentary focuses on Turner, née Anna Mae Bullock, learning to sing as a teenager in a Black Baptist church, joining Ike Turner’s group in the late 1950s and surviving extreme emotional abuse and the violence of which he was her husband. and musical partner, inflicted on her for over 16 years.
But halfway through, the film turns that familiar story upside down. Tina Turner repeatedly emphasizes the work she’s done to overcome her past trauma and reveals how the media focus on her as an abuse survivor limits her to her and her musical heritage. The audacity of his comeback, which included his first solo album, “Private Dancer” in 1984, and his singular blend of guts, gospel and gritty vocals were repeatedly erased, Turner reminds us, by interviewers. In the 45 years since she left Ike, they’ve asked her more often about her relationship with him than about his musical inventiveness.
In the end, it’s another Oscar-nominated film that offers the freest portrayal of black women’s musical virtuosity: Pixar’s animated film “Soul,” starring its revered jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams ( expressed by chance by Bassett). Partly because we know so little about her history, she comes across as an icon and is the musician that the film’s protagonist, pianist Joe Gardner, wants to play and emulate the most.
“There is an unspoken narrative in jazz that men play music and women sing,” Terri Lyne Carrington, jazz drummer and founder of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, told me. “But in ‘Soul’ we can actually hear Dorothea’s virtuosity both as a saxophonist and as a conductor. Carrington – who was only 11 when Ella Fitzgerald told Oscar Peterson he needed to hear Carrington play – was also a consultant for “Soul”. But she insists the Pixar character was already outstanding before joining the project, making Dorothea’s film invention an even more drastic addition to Hollywood’s jazz canon.
“She’s the future,” Carrington said. “What they did was make us imagine the future. Because there isn’t a woman right now that every young guy wants to play with as an instrumentalist. And I dare say there really never was. It was transformative.