Movie Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is about a recording session for the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey, and her band. The tensions run high as Levee, the trumpet player, expresses his individuality and boasts that he has a band of his own lined up. Ma senses the dissent and that Levee is horning in on her girl. The power struggle continues as Ma fights for her needs with her manager and the producer of the record. It's all on a hot summer's day with only one small fan to try and cool them all off. The film stars Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, and Dusan Brown. The film is directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.


There are films in which characters are king. Most of these films are based on plays, as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is, and they feature a great deal of talking and few locations and sets. I don't understand other's objections to these types of films. I, for one, want the greatest special effect on screen to be a terrific performance. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom truly delivers in that respect with every performer involved.


Some of the best character actors around are in this cast. They chew as much scenery and take up as much space as the leads of the film and fill in this world. Often background characters are underwritten or one note, but in an August Wilson text, as adapted brilliantly by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, there are no one dimensional characters. Each one has a depth and inner life that may not be spoken, but is in every movement and glance.


One of my favorite scenes, that feels out of place at first, is as Toledo, played by the great Glynn Turman, expounds on the lost identity of African American people. He describes that when their ancestors were in Africa, they had their individual, tribal and national identities, but as they were all mixed together they became a stew and the only thing left after the stew is the leftovers. Punctuated by his words are different examples of the Black community of Chicago. It seems out of place only because it takes us out of the studio building, but its themes echo the uphill battle our characters face and why they fight so hard for their piece of the pie.


With a stage to screen adaptation there are a lot of ways to show how a character gets from "off stage" to the main action. I love the way that Santiago-Ruben added in these scenes and the way director George C. Wolfe and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler showed us a whole world outside of the studio. The best of these is Ma's entrance to the film. In a wordless sequence we see Ma coming down the stairs of an opulent hotel. The guests all stare at her. They're middle and upper class people in the Black community of Chicago and likely look down on her and her Southern ways. We get the feeling they also don't approve of her paramour Dussie Mae. Ma looks each one of them in the eye, she never backs down, she shows them they can't get to her or change her. She's going to be who she is whether they like it or not.


This scene wouldn't play as well as it does, though, without the incredible talent that is Viola Davis. She simply commands every scene she's in. She embodies that diva mentality, getting her way on every little thing, including drinking an entire bottle of Coke before she sings even one note. Yet, we still have intense sympathy for her as she lays down her reasons for being as she is with Cutler in an intimate scene. Davis plays every facet of Ma so well. She embodies this incredible persona and larger than life presence.


The counterpoint to Ma's diva mentality is Levee's ambition, which would have fallen flat if it weren't for Chadwick Boseman's immeasurable talent. Like Davis, Boseman is in charge of every single scene. He chews up and spits out monologues and diatribes and rants and boasts like a dynamo that's just getting started. Like Ma, Levee starts out with swagger and cockiness, but when the truth, his truth, about his past and where he came from comes to light, we see the intensity of his drive isn't entirely about the money, the fame or the art, but about the revenge on the people that have tried to keep or cut him down. Boseman was a true chameleon of his craft. He slips so easily from one gear to the next and never plays a false note.


I love a meaty, dialogue heavy movie. I love to watch people move around in these worlds of speech and verbal sparing. I love a shocking ending that in the end feels like a completely foregone conclusion. The cast is incredible and the music is terrific. This is a great film and one you should seek out as soon as possible.

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