Different Kinds of Loss in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same. – pg 336

A father is dragged from his home in front of his twin daughters and lynched. Decades later his wife succumbs to Alzheimer’s. The deaths of these parents bookend the margins of their daughters’ lives, and in between the two women make and remake themselves, grieve over their own loss of identities, the loss of connection to each other and to their past.

Initially as teenagers, the twins run away together from their small country town to the big city of New Orleans. But from there one sister realizes she can pass for white and insulates herself into a world of privilege that eventually takes her to Los Angeles, while the other goes her own way struggling in her sister’s absence and eventually finding her way back home after a sojourn in Washington DC.

In addition to making and remaking their own stories, they make stories for their daughters, too. And those daughters make and remake themselves and gravitate towards others doing the same, all sad souls adrift in a wide lake of a world losing and finding themselves over and over.

“I think everybody who ever hurt me loved me,” her mother said. -pg 337

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is a brilliant drama about trauma and love and loss. Its themes, motifs, and characters speak to things pointedly black and pointedly female, but undeniably American. Its episodic, transgenerational format would lend itself well to being adapted as a “limited series” on a prestige streaming service.

Many of the events and plot points would seem too “on the nose” if they weren’t so real. A lot happens to these women, but isn’t that life? Both too long and too short…always one comeback, reinvention away from that perfect moment where suddenly it all makes sense. Waiting for that last poof…when we vanish for good.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

I’m Gonna Show You the Best in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Packing a multitude of history, culture, stories and trauma into a single “day in the life” of a legendary blues entertainer is just one of the brilliant tricks Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls off.

Director George C. Wolfe is most famous for his theater work, and the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s amazing play. Not a single shot or moment is wasted in the film’s 94-minute runtime. Wolfe brilliantly uses classical cinematic language to transmit backstory and history in a matter of seconds. Witness the opening scene of two black people running through a swampy woodland, representing the multitudes who escaped the bondage of slavery only to live in constant fear and more oppression, and ultimately entering a giant tent where Ma Rainey is bringing down the house. Later in the film there’s a definitive shot from underneath a Chicago train rattling by that transitions seamlessly into Ma Rainey and her band nailing the recording of the titular song. Here we see people in constant movement, migration, darting from danger, surviving, finding a voice…an escape. But the blues was more a reflection of life than an escape, and it’s in those claustrophobic theatrical moments when the band banters in the dingy basement rehearsal room about their lives, their traumas, and their place in this messed up world where Wilson’s voice sings the loudest and clearest. It is there where the tensions rise leading to a shattering denouement, and a chilling closing scene of pain white-washed, talent stolen.

Of course, all of this is a stage for the exorcism of performances. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is earth-shatteringly good, with the actress showing us again (like she did in Fences) how comfortable she is digging so deep down and spookily into not only Wilson’s words, but also the spirits of generations of traumatized but boldly resilient black women. She’s matched, and some might say even overshadowed, in a way, by the late great Chadwick Boseman as the showy, troubled trumpeter Levee Green. Davis makes you feel every word Ma Rainey speaks or sings, but Boseman’s portrayal of Levee’s family tragedies nearly brought me to tears.

All the key players have their moments to shine: Davis kills it when her Ma Rainey explains why she puts such demands on her white manager. Glynn Turman breaks your heart when his Toledo waxes poetically about how the United States is a stew, and black people need to realize they are just the leftovers before they can do a damn thing about anything. And then the coup de grace is Boseman, calling upon another man’s god to actually do something for once, channeling some of the deepest hurt and personal pain I’ve ever seen painted on the screen. One can’t help but wonder, knowing now how terminally ill he was when he filmed this, if he wasn’t asking god “Why?” himself. Interplaying with them all is the seemingly stalwart, but desperately passionate when he’s triggered, Cutler played expertly by Coleman Domingo.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is as advertised. Merging music, stage, and screen to teach us about history and pain in a reflection from the past onto our own deeply troubled times, it’s the very best film as an artistic medium has to offer. It’s timeless. Timely. Essential.

Review by D. H. Schleicher