Based on the eponymous August Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the latest film by George C. Wolfe. The adaptation stars Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final film performance.
Set in 1920s Chicago, the film focuses on an eventful recording session where growing tensions between ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey (Davis), the studio, and her band threaten their livelihoods.
At the beginning of the film, Ma Rainey effortlessly entertains audiences in the Deep South and high-end venues filled with white Americans. However, she quickly establishes herself as the focal point of a performance – and God help anyone trying to share her limelight.
With her bravado and messy make-up, Ma comes across as a diva who is shunned by higher classes and antagonised by white Americans. However, her boldness and assertiveness come from an awareness of it being the only way she can be taken seriously in a white society. Despite her brashness, a heartfelt conversation with trombone player Cutler (Domingo) outlines the sad truth – her music is the only reason ‘white folk’ listens to her.
This essentially allows her to run things to her tastes. She chooses to arrive late to her own session and dictates which version of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ to record. She also hires her nephew Sylvester to perform the spoken intro of the song, despite his stammer inevitably hindering the recording. As a result, she weaponises her talent to reaffirm her position as the boss while highlighting her as an empowered, hard-working woman.
While Ma relaxes in the bright recording studio, the divided band has to practise in the basement band room, which becomes the breeding ground for the film’s fraught tension. On one side, there is pianist Toledo (Truman), Cutler and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – all religious and accustomed to each other and Ma’s position as the boss. On the other side, there is ambitious trumpeter Levee (Boseman), whose naivety, arrogance and apostasy separate him from the group.
Like Ma, Levee’s bravado stems from his self-recognised talent in entertaining white audiences. But unlike the singer, he has yet to stand up to the race that oppresses him. Instead of finding his voice, he is deeply scarred by the traumatic events surrounding his parents. This instils a somewhat submissive nature, causing him to blindly place his future in the hands of grumpy studio owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Along with the events of the session, disagreements amid the band and the claustrophobic settings build up Levee’s frustrations, causing him to lash out over a pair of shoes.
Amid Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘s ensemble cast, Davis and Boseman shine with their vibrant and poignant performances. Wolfe’s careful direction and Santiago-Hudson’s powerful screenplay allows the cast to drive the film with confidence, highlighting a passion that speaks to audiences.
Overall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a timely period piece about the significance of blues music in black culture, and the racism ingrained in it.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be available on Netflix on 18 December 2020.
Director: George C. Wolfe; Ruben Santiago-Hudson (screenwriter)
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne
Runtime: 94 minutes