The past six months have been a difficult period of processing for George C Wolfe. The director’s film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a huge hit over the new year and yet it’s been six months since its star, the actor Chadwick Boseman, died from colon cancer. “For the longest time I could not speak of him in the past,” says Wolfe solemnly, about coming to terms with his leading man’s death. “My brain just wouldn’t let me do it. But in the past two weeks or so I started to do that.”
The 66-year-old is in a reflective mood, speaking over Zoom from a snowstruck New York. In his soft yet commanding cadence, born of a life on Broadway, he meditates astutely on everything from the late Boseman to the racial politics of 1930s Harlem nightspot The Cotton Club. His considered approach to every topic he touches on, as well as being a playwright and theatre director himself, clearly made him the right fit for Netflix’s adaptation of celebrated playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and her band come together for one day during a sweltering Chicago summer to cut a record. Each character is a live wire of unprocessed racial trauma and emotion, taking out their hurt on one another until the destructive effects of racial discrimination lead to an explosive, and yet inevitable, endpoint. In rich, full colour Wolfe manages to encapsulate the energy and hope for better lives that Black people carried with them each day, even in the face of brutal racism.
In his final role, Boseman’s trumpeter Levee is the most obvious example of this destruction. Wolfe describes the character as a “knucklehead” with the affection of a doting father figure – the musician fizzes with the unstoppable energy of someone who knows they’re in their prime yet still unable to get out of their own way. “A friend of mine said it was fascinating watching Levee drawn toward chaos,” says Wolfe. “The problem with the character is he’s emblematic of what it means to be young, smart and talented. That [chaos] just goes with the territory.”
Given Boseman’s electric performance, the rumour mill is predicting he’ll be nominated for a posthumous Oscar. Wolfe is unsure about getting his hopes up – “that will happen as it happens”, he says – but he is clear on how he feels about Boseman as an artist. “I know this may sound full of it, but I think it’s one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. Period. It’s an astonishing performance: how naked it is, how viscerally powerful it is. There’s charisma and then there is the truth and he is filled with both.”
Though streaming platforms such as Netflix have previously been looked down on during award season, along with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Netflix films David Fincher’s Mank and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicao Seven are potentially in the running for an Oscar nomination this year. For Wolfe, the ongoing pandemic has rendered any arguments around streamers being lesser platforms moot. “Given the situation and the shutdown, any place where you can see art go see it. That’s a version of snobbism and a luxury from another time that has nothing to do with where we are right now.”
Another visceral performance in the film is delivered by the award-winning Viola Davis, who portrays the brash and demanding Ma Rainey, all glittering gold teeth and smeared eyeliner.
Wolfe was drawn to how Rainey “has this incredible sense of her own power at a time where there were literally laws in place to deny her power”, he says. In her obstinate nature, Wolfe was reminded of the women in his family growing up in Kentucky during segregation, including his mother, who had to battle against institutional racism to earn the education she deserved at college. As a child, he says, “the stories that were told to me were stories of defiance. I think that was very specific that those stories were told to me so I would feel empowered and strong.”
Though Rainey’s name fell out of the mainstream for a time, in recent years her legacy as one of the originators of the blues, as well as her more surprising life as an openly bisexual woman, has made many seek out her story. “One of the things that I am really most proud of about the film is that it’s ignited an incredible sense of curiosity about who she was,” agrees Wolfe. “People go, ‘Oh she was out in 1927’ – yes she was, because that’s how she lived her life.”
Even though the film is one of the few depictions of the star in existence, Wolfe says he wasn’t nervous about bringing a queer black icon to the screen, or about how to get it right. He says he embraced the challenge instead. “On a fundamental level, nobody’s paying me to be overwhelmed by the subject matter,” he says. “I’m being paid to embody it fully and as brilliantly as completely as I possibly can. It wasn’t so much [that] I had to honour an icon, it was [about] celebrating one so that the gospel of Ma could be spread.”
The gospel of Ma certainly resonates today, most clearly in the ways she negotiates around the destructive nature of white power structures in order to project the illusion of agency. Memorably, when Ma discovers her rider of cold Coca-Cola hasn’t been provided by her manager, she stands her ground, halting the recording process until her manager fixes his mistake. Were scenes like that something he could relate to at various points in his life? He shoots back a rumbling laugh: “Yeah, at every point in my life.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to have achieved positions of authority and power, and a certain command over my career,” he continues. “Then when I think I’m soaring, I come into contact with some silly mediocre structure that tries to stop me and then you go, ‘OK, here we go again.’ But yeah, an artist has to…” He pauses, his jovial tone suddenly becoming serious. “If you live by other people’s rules you will drown,” he continues. “You will drown.”
Throughout his career, Wolfe has refused to live by other people’s rules. He was born in 1954 in Frankfort, Kentucky, and fell in love with the arts from a young age. This love taught him one of his earliest lessons about racial discrimination and revenge. “I couldn’t go to the Capitol theatre, which was a segregated theatre, to go see101 Dalmatians when I was a very young child,” Wolfe recalls. “I remember the vividness of that because my grandmother tried to call up the owner of the theatre to ask if I could get in. Then years later, I was the editor of the local high school newspaper and I go and meet with that same owner of the theatre. I convince him to give me free tickets so I can write reviews of the movies that were playing there. Some part of my brain is like, ‘and this is revenge for not letting me come see 101 Dalmatians’”.
After studying theatre at Pomona College in California and later earning an MFA in dramatic writing and musical theatre from New York University, Wolfe made a name for himself in the theatre with his 1986 play The Colored Museum. He won an Obie in 1990 for Spunk, based on the work of African American author Zora Neale Hurston, and then rave reviews for the 1991 musical Jelly’s Last Jam. Rather than focus exclusively on stories from the Black community, though, he went on to direct the Broadway premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, which tackles the Aids crisis in the 1980s and landed him the first of his three Tony Awards.
Wolfe likes to keep busy and shifted towards film direction with 2004’s HBO film Lackawanna Blues. But in both his plays and his films, whether in the framing of an actor’s face or the detailed depictions of a city or time period, Wolfe’s steadfast attention to detail shines through. Speaking to Variety about Wolfe as director, Viola Davis said: “George is both intuitive and hands on,” adding, “He also can give a word that opens up a wellspring of emotions that can completely release you. He is an artist.” And it’s his unyielding passion for great stories and people’s motivations that continues to inspire his creativity. “I read a fact or I discover somebody doing something unbelievably heroic, or unbelievably foolish, or unbelievably tragic or something that was incredibly foolish, tragic, and heroic all at the exact same time and then I become obsessed,” he says.
As an African American director who brought the voices of Black America to a wider audience in the Eighties and Nineties, Wolfe is one of the forebearers to the current roster of Black film-makers such as Jordan Peele, Donald Glover and Boots Riley. But although he is excited to see so many Black creatives getting their dues, he is sceptical about the idea of a so-called Black renaissance in film and TV.
“Great work is happening now,” says Wolfe, “but it’s complicated for me because there have been many brilliant artists who tried to work in films in America and could only go so far – artists of colour, primarily Black artists, who tried to stake a claim to this.” He adds, laughing, “that tempers my ‘yay, renaissance’ [feeling] just a touch.”
While a renaissance may not be on Wolfe’s mind right now, he has always been focused on nurturing talent, such as the playwrights he brought on while he was the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York in the Nineties. In hindsight, they were “maybe a little bit like Levee, foolish and a bit of a knucklehead” in their youthful eagerness to showcase their talent, but the interesting stories they told have kept him going throughout his career. Those tales and ideas “inspired me to want to nurture them and support them the way I have been nurtured and supported”, says Wolfe. “If we tell stories that are about survival and miraculous people doing miraculous things in not the best of circumstances, I think those stories are very important. I feel as though it’s my job to contribute stories of possibility.”