A pair of footwear helps ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Backside’ sing

The film may be titled “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but the George C. Wolfe-directed adaptation of August Wilson’s play, streamed on Netflix since December, might as well be titled “Cornetist Levees Yellow Shoes.” That’s because from the moment the fateful footwear appears on screen – less than seven minutes – when Levee sped across the street in Chicago in 1927 to take a closer look at them in a shop window, almost creamed by a car will – It’s beautiful to look at and impossible to ignore.

And by the time we say goodbye to Levee (spoiler alert), they’ve become one of the most life-changing pairs of cinematic kicks on this side of Dorothy’s ruby ​​slippers.

When Levee (played by Chadwick Boseman in his last film role) jumps into the pressure cooker of the band’s rehearsal room for the first time with newly purchased yellow wingtips in hand, it feels like he’s getting a loaded pistol – with the security off – erratically his fellow musicians wave around. From there, things don’t get any less tense. It turns out that his detour via shopping for shoes got him late, which irritates his bandmates. It also turns out that $ 4 of the $ 11 levee paid for the shoes (about $ 165 in 2021) had come straight out of the trombonist’s pocket – through a game of craps – which irritates them even more. In a very short time the shoes become much more than just a pair of shoes.

You have become a wedge between the men, a powerful symbol of upward mobility for an ambitious bugler with big dreams and a fiery fuse that burns and splashes towards a powder keg of pride that, when it finally explodes, ruins and changes several lives the course of music history along the way.

Boseman’s character spots the yellow wingtips in a shop window in Chicago in the movie. Costume designer Ann Roth says she found the perfect couple in a store on Orchard Street in New York.

(David Lee / Netflix)

Not bad for a pair of shoes whose exact origin – at least off-screen – is lost to the airwaves. Costume designer Ann Roth, who spoke to The Times from her Pennsylvania home late last month, only remembers the buttery yellow wingtip brogues with perforated patterns that frame the toe box curving over the vamp and tying up over the toe cap New York shoe store in Manhattan. “”[I found them] in a store on Orchard Street – or maybe right on Orchard Street, ”Roth said, noting that all prep for the film in New York was being done – and quickly – before filming began on July 8, 2019 in Pittsburgh, none new shoes, ”she added,“ but older shoes that they had in stock. “

Roth wasn’t 100 percent sure who made the focusing shoes either (“Do you know how many films I’ve worked on since then?” She said when asked about their origins), but she thought Stacy Adams might his. “I used Stacy Adams in the past and always went to Harlem to buy her,” said the 89-year-old costume designer, whose resume to date spans more than a hundred theatrical productions, about as many films as a Tony (for “Nance”) and an Oscar (for “The English Patient”). “They are divine shoes.” A week later, Roth confirmed through a Netflix representative that the brand behind the brogues she bought was To Boot New York. (According to William C. Daw, curator of the Curtis Theater Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, home of the August Wilson Archives, they are identified as Florsheim shoes in the dialogue by Levee in the original piece.)

However, Roth was absolutely certain about two things: First, that Levee’s shoes should be yellow. “These are shoes that belong to an uptown guy – a snappy dresser,” she said.

Chadwick Boseman as a levee

Chadwick Boseman as Dike in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

(David Lee / Netflix)

“They are chic shoes for going out, like when you walk into a hotel [with them on] You’d stop the traffic and everyone would stare at how beautiful you were, “Roth said, adding that in the late 1920s, which the film is set in, most men had two pairs of shoes – a brown pair (for work ) and a black couple (for the church). “But yellow shoes,” she added, “that would be extraordinary. You had to be a high stepper to have it, or wear it, or pay for it. “

Roth also insisted that they be monochrome rather than two-tone wingtips with contrasting leather on the toe, heel, and lacing (as in some stage productions), stating that two-tone shoes would not be as powerfully a visual. “When you look at someone, your eyes go down, [and] you want to see a strong color, ”she said. “When it’s broken, there are fewer visual elements [impact]. ”
Although it’s common in filmmaking to have multiples of a particular piece of costume on hand – especially if it’s something that has as much screen time and focus as Levee’s shoes – Roth said she only bought a single pair, for which they would have to be treated during the 40 day filming. “I wanted them to look brand new, so we gave them lots of petroleum jelly,” she said, referring to the old-school shoe care hack to remove scratch marks and add shine.

Chadwick Boseman as Deich and Glynn Turman as Toledo.

Levee (Chadwick Boseman) resents Toledo (Glynn Turman) for stepping on his brand new $ 11 wingtips.

(David Lee / Netflix)

This is a delicious behind-the-scenes detail, especially given that an accidental abrasion of the musician’s beloved brogues by a bandmate’s “ragged clodhopper” in the final minutes of the film is the match strike that Levees Pride’s powder keg is in blows up and ends the movie. That a single finger of petroleum jelly – patented in 1872 and likely widespread in Chicago in 1927 – could have made the difference in this rehearsal room pressure cooker feels almost heartbreaking.
Of course, this kind of practical correction would not only have withheld Wilson’s play from 1982, but also the script adapted to Ruben Santiago-Hudson. That in turn would have deprived us of Boseman’s last film performance, which is as indelible and burned into our brain stems as those beautiful-to-look and impossible-to-ignore buttery yellow wing tips.

Which would have been infinitely more heartbreaking.

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