Issue #34: (Wo)Men of the Moment 🕷️
Selena + Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Happy Friday, all! We’re going to give it to you straight: Usually when we say “you made it to the end of another long week” we’re just talking pandemic. But this week we were both “at Sundance” which was digital this year, giving us the opportunity to really, really cram all the movies in. So after a long weekend of screenings straight into another work week, we’re feeling that February chill-out vibe more than usual.
But in the meantime, let’s all take some time out of our Friday to talk about some women of the moment, and the adaptations that don’t quite do them the justice they deserve. First up, Zosha on Selena and the patriarchial pitfalls of adapting her story through one lens. Then Cate on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the lackluster portrayal of the titular role.
Zosha on Selena
There’s a weird maleness inherent to the retelling of Selena Quintanilla’s story. It is present in Selena, the movie we’re talking about here, and also Selena, the Netflix miniseries that we’ll also probably mention here. Essentially in order to tell Selena’s story — one of hope, heartbreak, fame, compassion, love, and hard work — you have to talk about the men in her life.
This reasoning is pretty straightforward, on its face: the real Selena Quintanilla, Queen of Tejano music, was murdered just before her 24th birthday. Her star was snuffed out just as she was really truly breaking through, recording tracks for her long-awaited (on her part) crossover album. Before she died, however, she worked (and worked, and worked). Starting at 8, her dad got her and her siblings into a band to hone their — and, it seems, namely Selena’s — talent. She made a dozen albums before she died, and though her talent was innate, it certainly had a boost from the men in her family; her father Abraham managed the band (and kept them on a tight leash to ensure no scandals that might derail their success), and her brother A.B. wrote the songs and produced the albums. Later on she would date and marry the guitarist of their band, Chris Pérez, who became another formative influence and point of reference for her.
Abraham and Chris would go on to be the foremost shapers of the Selena legacy. Abraham started producing the JLo biopic weeks after Selena was shot and killed, believing an authorized telling would help dispel the rumors and misinformation surrounding her life. Chris would go on to write about his and Selena’s relationship nearly 20 years after she died, chronicling their story and her life from the vantage point of bandmate and partner. Now, 25 years later, we are left with a story whose waypoints are informed by the men telling them.
But it’s also illustrative of what stories like Selena are missing. In both the Selenas, we get a sense of just how important these men are to her — as I have no doubt they were in real life. But we don’t get a sense of the feminine side. Both iterations of Selena sort of downplay her mom, a woman she (by all accounts) spent so much of her time with, particularly on the tour bus where she’d ride in the back with her and talk for hours. Her sister and drummer of the band Suzette was so close to her, and yet in these iterations feels like she also gets sidestepped on the way to fame. The biggest moments in these films belong to the men just as much as they belong to Selena; the “story” of Selena and Selena is anchored in the actions of the two main men in her life. The women simply get the short stick here.
It makes for a hollower version of Selena than I would want. These men can show me the facts of her life, but their limited perspective can’t tell me about them. Neither seems all that interested in Selena’s love of fashion — beyond her penchant for flamboyance and dream of designing clothes at a wider scale — so Selena does not treat it as its own artistic pursuit, rife with its own trials and achievements.
I’m definitely not here to shit on Selena (1997) or Selena. But the movie (and the show) got me thinking about how our ideas of people are shaped so much by the people who get to tell their story. Hamilton gets at this, I know, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. But with biopics — and maybe particularly with a person like Selena — there’s a distinct wistfulness to never being able to see the full person, only a facet of them, captured from the refraction onto someone else. Jennifer Lopez is a great performer, but to capture in ineffable, the attracting force that made Selena so beloved, that’s a lot harder to do. She can’t quite do it, but I also don’t think anyone, satisfactorily can. It’s Plato’s cave but all of us are just hoping to feel a bit of that warmth, to live in a world with Selena Quintanilla-Pérez just a little while longer.
Perhaps there is a world in which music biopics just can’t offer us that anymore; to tell someone’s whole story is a lot, too much. (Pfft, “perhaps.” Look at me couching my terms when Walk Hard already brought this genre to its, uh, knees.) There’s something more interesting about capturing a quick moment of someone’s life, a thesis statement that’s informed by its limitations rather than seeking to outdo them. Though I can remember nothing else about the biopic of Jimi Hendrix with Andre 3000 Jimi: All Is By My Side, I remember admiring its (unauthorized) audacity to have a film with no Hendrix songs (again, it was unauthorized). It ended up shedding a distinct light on the person, a new shade to add into my mental portrait. Good Night and Good Luck not only picked a (particularly notable) moment of Edward R. Murrow’s life, it decided that his power came from being the person in the room who spoke the least.
Selena has no such framework; it seeks only to preserve and persist. I cannot fault it for those desires — FUCK Yolanda. But I wish that it had appreciated the Selena whose star shone between the men in her life. Not every big moment is a decision made by her manager or husband, not every dramatic pivot in her life came from masculine energy. If you’ve seen Selena perform you know her brilliance was her own, and also an amalgamation of her life. And you know she loved that feminine, glittery goodness. I wish we had gotten a chance to learn about those choices.
Cate on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
I really, really, really wanted to like this film. It had all the ingredients of something I should love—a Denzel Washington produced adaptation of an August Wilson play, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman as the leads, and a story about a too-often forgotten queer black woman who made waves. But despite all the hype and the advance praise, it all came tumbling down from Davis’s very first scene in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
There’s no easy to way to say this: Davis is horrendously miscast in the role. Sporting sweaty, smeared makeup and a fat suit (in 2020!!!!) she moves around the movie’s scenes like an anchor out of place, dragging down everything in her wake. There’s nothing redeeming in the performance at all, and it’s frustrating to see such a catastrophe unfold in slow motion when it didn’t have to happen this way.
The first time I saw Ma Rainey depicted onscreen, it was in the HBO film Bessie. Played then by comedienne and actress Mo’Nique, Ma Rainey was a brash, unapologetic supernova of a woman who drew others into her orbit through sheer force of will. Mo’Nique imbued her with a swagger and sensuality that was exhilarating to see. Hips, thighs and breasts curved up from her fat body and rooted her to the ground— in her hands, Ma Rainey was the sexiest commodity in town.
But Davis’ portrayal lacks all of the sex appeal that Mo’Nique brought to the Mother of The Blues. Her body language betrays the fat suit she wears under her costumes—her center of gravity is off for someone accustomed to carrying around more flesh and bone. Davis brings lechery where there should be seduction, staring at her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) like an old man with a distasteful reputation. She fusses and complains with her band and her manager (the film centers on the recording of her album) but never brings the force or terror that Mo’Nique commanded.
It is ironic that Mo’Nique’s portrayal stands out as superior when she was in the supporting role to Queen Latifah’s Bessie Smith. Here’s Ma Rainey is the titular character, but gets less screen time than her trumpeter Levee, played to great effect by Chadwick Boseman. The two performances feel mismatched in every way, because in a real sense, they exist in two different films. Boseman commands the film, leading the vast majority of scenes and staking his claim in the story. His character Levee recounts his traumas and dreams and opines about the ambition he has to transcend the limitations of a white imagination. He and the rest of the band are downstairs in the rehearsal room, while Ma Rainey and Dussie are upstairs in the recording studio. And the mood of the film shifts on its axis each time the locations are replaced with each other.
Boseman plays Levee as a man with bigger dreams than he’s allowed. And Davis attempts to play Rainey as a woman acutely aware of the minimal leverage she has because of her talent and popularity. But instead, in Davis’s hands, Rainey is a testy curmudgeon who bristles at reasonable suggestions and picks fights just to return the balance of power to her favour. Davis’s Ma Rainey reads as sloppy, difficult and even at times, repulsive. It’s a far cry from the bubbly, confident stem sexuality of Mo’Nique’s portrayal.
Part of the reason I fixate on Mo’Nique as well is because of her well-publicized feud with Netflix, who is distributing the film. They burned a bridge with her when they refused to pay her what she was worth, and consequently, couldn’t approach her for this project. It’s a shame, because she’d already proven her mettle with this very character. Instead, we got a caricature we’re supposed to praise merely because it was given to us by one of our greatest working actors.
Davis is already in the middle of her “how I lost the weight” promotional tour. It’s expected, but also frustrating. Part of what made Mo’Nique so good in the role is that she was a fat black woman. She embodied everything that it meant to move through the world as someone who had to give people a reason to see value in her. That’s not something that’s easy to fake, and a fat-suit is a poor substitute.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will undoubtedly end up on lots of year-end lists and garner many nominations as awards season closes in, if only on the strength of Boseman’s performance. But its titular roles are severely lacking, and there’s no amount of fabricated prestige sheen that can change that.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: A long look at the history and future of the New York Times’ crossword section (and Will Shortz’s shortz-comings). What “shop small” means (if anything). Wellness gurus peddling QAnon conspiracies, stay vigilant folks. The untold damage that came with not stepping up to the plate earlier on Pornhub’s business model. This wild ride of internet vengeance?? Oh, and also I wrote on the production design of Search Party and The Dig if you wanna give those a read.
CATE: This week, a look back at five years of Rihanna’s Work, a feature on RHOC’s Braunwyn Windham-Burke, an oral history of The Emperor’s New Groove, the saga of the nightmare New York roommate, proof of Kathryn Hahn’s exquisite skill, an examination of what Cicely Tyson left us, and how Dolly ruined one of her classics.