A spoiler-free review of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Toyloy Brown III, Managing Editor

Superficially, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a period piece set in 1927 that shows the surging tension between Ma Rainey — who is known as the  “Mother of Blues” — an ambitious trumpeter named Levee and the white music management trying to profit from their talent. 

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Beneath the film’s exterior is a story that reveals the United States’ history of exploiting Black culture and the cruel reality of African Americans possessing determination in the face of dishonest gatekeepers. The movie also depicts the struggles of staying strong religiously when faced with tragedy and the significance of knowing the past while traversing modern and future issues. 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on August Wilson’s eponymous 1982 play and was released Dec. 18, on Netflix. The film is directed by George C. Wolfe and features acting performances from Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts and Taylour Paige among others. 

Viola Davis played Ma Rainy. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

All of the actors were great, but Davis and Boseman’s performances are nothing short of masterful. Davis’ character Ma Rainey is the established singer who understands the warts of the industry and is content in her style of blues music. She completely embodies the character — a vocalist who seemingly demonstrates the personality traits of a diva but is instead being fully aware of her monetary worth as the sole reason she is tolerated by the white men who record her songs. Davis does an excellent job displaying her role’s seriousness when commanding respect and gregarious nature at times with her band. 

Levee, who is played by Boseman, is an up-and-coming musician who is a fit for the direction of popular music. Boseman’s presence on screen is surreal. This was his last film prior to his death after a four-year bout with colon cancer, and he genuinely may have delivered one of, if not the best, acting performance of his career. 

The emotional range his character experienced and the poignancy of his words in every scene were nothing short of captivating. One moment his exuberance is contagious and the next his seething resentment when reminiscing on his youth is palpable. The seriousness that Boseman took this role is even more awe-inspiring knowing what he was dealing with health-wise. One subtle indicator of his commitment was the comfort he appeared to have when he played the trumpet since he learned to play the instrument for his role.  

Actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer in 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)

The magic of this film is not only created by the brilliance of the actors. It is also deeply rooted in the story penned by the playwright Wilson. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” does not deal with the fantastical. It is a picture that transports viewers to an aspect of African American life, in this case the music recording scene in Chicago. Through this routine event, the film exposes the nature in which the talent of marginalized Black people is stolen with impunity and how their well-being deteriorates. 

One of the several undercurrents in the film is the despair that can develop from crushed aspirations. The movie shows how this gutless abuse can break a person’s will, unravel unhealed issues and lead to unintended consequences. A less subtle theme of the movie is the struggle of keeping one’s religious belief alive although personal hardship may sap all the faith that exists in the person. 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows the amazement, disappointment and perseverance that was involved in the lives of 20th century African Americans. Transforming Wilson’s play into cinema reifies the importance of Black history and the connection it has to contemporary times. This quality must be attributed to the play’s author, Wilson, who was cognizant of how the past can influence the lives of people during his day. 

“One thing a lot of plays seem to be saying is that we need to, as black Americans, to make a connection with our past in order to determine the kind of future we’re going to have,” Wilson said. “In other words, we simply need to know who we are in relation to our historical presence in America.” The film accomplishes that for viewers today.

5/5 Stars