Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

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Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Photo: David Lee/Netflix


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom




5/5 Stars


Taking place on a summer's day in the 1920s, a band of musicians join together to record an album with the legendary Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Rainey is late to the recording sessions, and tensions rise between her and her white management, as well as with young upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) who is trying to increase his own ambitions.


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a film about tension – racial tension, musical tension, sexual tension. It feels almost as if you are watching it with your ear to the ground, waiting for the tension to erupt, but when it does, it still seems to catch you by surprise.

It's clear from the outset that it is based on a play. August Wilson's words seem to flow from the characters' mouths like butter. Similar to Fences, which was the first time Wilson's plays were put to screen, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has a host of beautifully crafted monologues that depict many stories of the black experience in the 1920s and for long afterwards.

Written in 1982 by Wilson, the play was part of a series of 10 plays he wrote about the black experience in every decade, called the Pittsburgh Cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in particular, tells the story of a day of recording Ma Rainey's album. Her band members – trombonist Cutler (Colton Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and trumpeter Levee arrive at the recording studio, and while they wait for Rainey to arrive, they share stories, jokes and arguments. Ma Rainey's white manager Irwin (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) fret over whether Ma Rainey will eventually turn up. She does, albeit late, and has a car accident outside the studio which seems very close to turning violent before Irwin steps in.

But after Ma Rainey turns up, the drama intensifies, with her she has brought her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). She insists that Sylvester introduces her on the album, but the problem is that he stammers, so every time he struggles through a word they have to start again, but Ma Rainey does not mind how long it takes, she insists that Sylvester is included on the track. Dussie Mae flirts about the recording studio, but the only one who is brave enough to take her up on it is Levee, but that's another story.

Most of the film takes place in two rooms – the very claustrophobic basement where the band rehearses and the dingy area where they record. In contrast, every scene that takes place outside is bright, shining and full of colour, showing the conditions that they had to work under. But the sweltering heat and the claustrophobic nature of where they were working seems to add to the tension in the film. You can feel that they are uncomfortable, so you feel uncomfortable as well.

What the film does extremely well is that it shows that none of the characters is who they seem – Ma Rainey as a prima donna, Toledo as a complacent fool, or Levee as a cocky man willing to play the game. They all have stories, they all have experiences, they all have moments which lead them to where they are now, and the decisions they are making. A particularly memorable scene is when Ma Rainey refuses to perform until she has a Coca-Cola, and the recording is paused until someone goes to buy her a Coke. She notes to Cutler that she orders her white manager and record company owner around because she knows that she makes them money and they need her, but also they only care about her voice - once they have the recording they won't need her anymore. She has a limited time to call the shots and get what she wants from the arrangement.

Black people, and how they are treated by white people, is laced in every story. From Cutler telling the story of how a famous preacher was just reduced to a dancing minstrel by a group of white men, to Levee telling the harrowing story of a moment from his childhood that scarred him literally and figuratively, to Toledo describing black people as the leftovers. It's heartbreaking, painful and still feels relevant when noting the police brutality attacks and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

Viola Davis shines in this role as she does in almost everything that she chooses to star in. She really is an incomparable actor who slipped so easily into the heavy makeup of Ma Rainey and made the role so interesting and captivating. She should receive many accolades for this performance, and they will all be well-deserved.

But it is very difficult to talk about the film without mentioning how amazing Chadwick Boseman is. From his first scene in the film, I had to take a breath. His death, even all these months later, still hits hard. In the short time, that he entertained us onscreen, he gave his all in all of his performances, laid his heart on the line, and created amazing pieces of work. We will forever be mourning that he left us too soon, he still had so much to give and seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a legendary actor. But in many ways, this, his last film role, is a beautiful swan song. His performance is heartbreaking, charming and grandiose. He delights in the subtle moments, wears every emotion on his face, and delivers his monologues with strength and vigour.

Just like the character of Levee, Chadwick had ambition, and just like Levee, Chadwick's stem seemed to be cut just before it truly got to bloom. His monologue where he rants about the unfairness of God seems to ring so true when we think about all the opportunities he didn't get to have in his short life. Levee deserved more, Chadwick deserved more, and I can't wait to see him announced as an Academy Award nominee next year.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a stunning exploration of the black experience of the Jazz Age. It features a story of a real-life figure who is often not given her dues or attention with regards to the contribution she made to the blues and the history of music. It is a beautiful tribute to Chadwick Boseman and an excellent celebration of both his and Davis' talent.


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