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March 2, 2021

‘Tease Those Ideas’: Lessons from the Writer of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

What do you do when you hit a brick wall while writing? For Ruben Santiago-Hudson – writer of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the beautiful, heartbreaking drama about a 1920s blues pioneer, the solution is returning to the greatest well of inspiration there is: real life.

“As a writer, ideas don’t always flow. So how do you tease those ideas? I’d start listening to music from that era. I’d start reading about [other] blues women of the ‘20s because the celebration of Ma is the celebration of all these dynamite Black women entertainers of that time,” the screenwriter told me this week on Script Apart – my podcast about the first drafts of great movies.

On each episode of Script Apart, a brilliant screenwriter revisits their initial screenplay for what became a beloved movie, discussing what changed, what didn’t and why on its journey to the big screen. For Santiago-Hudson, plenty changed as he sought to bring his friend August Wilson’s revered 1982 play to the screen.

Download the Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom screenplay here!

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (Netflix)

For a start, there was the tricky task of condensing a two-and-a-half hour-long play into a 90-minute movie runtime, requiring multiple rewrites and agonizing questions about what could be cut out. “Which parts were painful to lose? Every part was painful to lose!” he laughs. “Nothing was so precious that it was not expendable. But you can’t take off a limb and expect the same movement. So it becomes a balancing act.”

Also in the screenwriter’s first draft was a slightly different opening scene, including shots that showed the huge social upheavals occurring in the same era, that Ma’s music became an unofficial soundtrack to. “I wanted to show more of The Great Migration,” says Santiago-Hudson, referring to the 1920s movement of millions of Black Americans out of racially segregated Southern states into the country’s Northeast, Midwest and West. In our conversation, you’ll hear why those sequences ultimately proved impossible – but why it remains a crucial thematic backdrop to the movie.

Elsewhere, Santiago-Hudson reveals why the character of Levee in the movie – played by the late, great Chadwick Boseman – is a metaphor for the “way that Black men have been abused, the way their image, their contributions, their beauty and their intellect has been snatched, distorted and damaged” throughout America’s history. If you’re wondering how to go about bringing such beautifully complicated characters to your own work, well, wonder no longer: Ruben generously explains how he approached the task, providing useful tips about adding nuance, dimension and different shades to your characters on the page.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (Netflix)

If this is your first time listening to Script Apart, I hope it fires you up to write. Whether I’ve been talking to Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins, Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. de Souza or an emerging talent who’s just scored an indie smash with a spec script, such as Saint Frances writer Kelly O’Sullivan, I’m always itching to open Arc Studio Pro and get to work on my own scripts the moment these interviews end.

Watching great movies can be intimidating for aspiring writers: “How can I even dream of writing something this funny or scary or gripping?” you may wonder, depending on what you’re watching. Script Apart exists to demystify that question. Every perfect film starts with an imperfect first draft, which is then fine-tuned into the movie we know and love today.

So listen to the episode below (supported by Arc Studio Pro and Coverfly), get inspired and get writing. As one of Ma’s band members might say: “a-one, two, you know what to do.”

‘Tease Those Ideas’: Lessons from the Writer of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
Al Horner

Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.

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