Published Dec 17, 2020Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a perfect example of a well-adapted play: it's economical in its use of space, the monologues are mighty, and performances are infallibly fallible. Starring two powerhouses — Chadwick Boseman (in his final film appearance) and Viola Davis — Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is an expansive film wrought of contradictions: though confined to a singular moment in time, it tells an enormous tale through performances that are so subtle and nuanced they deserve to be canonized.
Produced by Denzel Washington, directed by Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, which itself is based on the historical Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, the mother of blues.
The plot follows the course of a recording session in 1920s Chicago. Boseman's Levee is a trumpeter in Viola Davis' Ma Rainey's band, whose members await her arrival in their assigned and subterranean rehearsal room that's basically a locker room. Ma arrives late with her girlfriend and repeatedly butts heads with her white manager and producer, wresting control of the afternoon out of their hands to show to them that she wants to be treated as white male musicians are treated. Over the course of the afternoon, the band members share their histories, and Levee emerges as a musician with grand hopes for his future, despite his past. Ultimately about the ways in which white producers exploit black musicians, the action in this film, contained as it is in a small moment, has lasting effects on all the characters' lives and all that they touch.
Ma can be read as fiery or difficult, but this wouldn't adequately describe her position in this movie. Ma refuses to start recording until all her requirements are met and walks away from the mic every time something doesn't go her way. When she realizes her manager failed to get her soda, she stalls the session, sending her bandmates out to buy some. While her manager and the studio producer argue in the wings, huffing about how Ma's demands are absurd and that she's being difficult, Ma tells her bandmate Cutler (Colman Domingo) that she simply wants the respect that her white counterparts get for just existing. She's exhausted by the blatant racism and sexism she has had to experience, despite making enormous amounts of money for her manager. Despite the fact that she is pioneering a genre, beloved by her community, and knows what she's doing better than anyone else, she knows her manager is just using her for her voice.
Ma is certainly formidable, but you can see in the way she fans herself in the heat of the studio, in the way she sits down as she waits for her drinks, and in the way she pretends to not notice the producer's attitude, that she is simply tired. Ma is a strong woman, certain of herself and of what she wants, but she is also rightly fed up with the white people around her, all at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. And this is why Davis' performance is so great: she delicately and vulnerably depicts such a bold, trailblazing woman.
Boseman's Levee is no less loud and strong-willed. Levee is using Ma's band to gain a footing in the industry, but in so doing, he upsets Ma by rewriting her songs, going to her manager behind her back, and going for her girlfriend. He has a vision of where he would like to be in the world and has the talent to get him there, but the system is rigged against him — something he is too naïve to know.
Boseman plays Levee with a joie de vivre that is something to behold — it's simultaneously stunning and heartbreaking. Boseman's performance is shot through with the foolhardiness and righteous indignation of youth that silences any of the experience-based interjections from his bandmates, who tell him that his great ambitions might be foiled by their messed-up world. It's this naïveté that makes Levee's boisterousness so charming. Boseman dances across the screen with an elegance that speaks volumes and delivers a monologue that commands respect.
Both of these performances are towering in their greatness because of their simmering subtleties. Davis and Boseman each expertly portray characters whose public (white-facing) personas are fraying at the edges from working twice as hard for a modicum of what other musicians get without a second thought. Wonderfully and realistically directed, produced, and designed, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom straddles contradictions, teasing out into the open from a singular afternoon the enormous personalities that it contained. This movie shows us the toll the music industry took on Rainey, and gives her a well-deserved and long-overdue introduction to modern audiences. (Netflix)