To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is really an example of superb film making. Directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is the second of ten films based on August Wilson’s plays to be produced by Denzel Washington; in a deal that may put Netflix at the top of the Oscar race for the next decade. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place during a recording session of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey in 1927 Chicago. The film stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his final film appearance), along with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles.
Very similar to Fences, there aren’t many set pieces in this film. We open in the city of Chicago for a few scenes following the band as they make their way to the recording studio where the rest of the film takes place. Things are set up very much like a play in that the acting is mainly what the viewers tune in for and not the visuals, which are top-notch all around in the film. Though, the standouts are by far Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis portrays Ma Rainey in a role that thoroughly embodies the late blues singer. Her voluptuous shape and matted on makeup and gold teeth make Davis almost disappear into the character. Ma Rainey is portrayed in the film as very temperamental and almost mean. Yet, in the little time that we get with her, we understand the reason for her attitude. She knows the only reason white people will work with her is because of how much money her voice generates for them. Therefore, she expects to be treated a certain way if they are going to just use her. She knows her worth and doesn’t take any guff from them or her own band. She expects things to be done a certain way and at a certain time and will not let her or her band be swindled or cheated in any way. It’s her way or the highway as she exhibits a number of times throughout the film.
On the other side, we have Chadwick Boseman as the band’s very talented, young trumpet player with a chip on his shoulder, Levee. For Boseman’s final performance he definitely goes out on a high note. He portrays Levee as very arrogant, confident, enthusiastic, and angry. He knows exactly how talented he is in both his musical ability and songwriting skills. Talents that could take him very far if he would get out of his own way. He focuses on the wrong things and rejects the wisdom of his elders, shown throughout the film through his obsession with a locked door in the rehearsal room. The band never disputes how good he is but continues to tell him how things are going to go due to their knowledge from working with Ma Rainey for a longer period of time. His behavior during the session coupled with the tragic backstory viewers are treated to during his conversations with Coleman Domingo’s character, Cutler, make for some excellent drama. Drama that felt as is Boseman himself was channeling some anger of his own.
And that is where the film truly shines, with character interaction and dialogue. Characters explain their thoughts on the difficulty of being a Black musician and a Black person in general in the United States during that time. Tackling how these difficulties have challenged their views on love, life, and most of all religion. This is balanced well between the band with Cutler, a steadfast believer, and Levee who believes God clearly hates all Black people for letting them suffer such atrocities. Watching how simple conversations escalate into fights is masterfully done and believable to boot. Rarely do films discussing Christianity delve into Black people’s views on the matter in such a questioning and thought-provoking way. My only gripe is that I felt the film could have given a little more time to these philosophical debates between the characters. I give Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom an Excellent 9.5/10.