Film Review--"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Dec 23, 2020

For his final review, to cap off 2020, Mark Harrington talks about a film that could be one of the best of the year.

This week’s film isMa Rainey’s Black Bottom” , which is currently steaming on Netflix. “ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars Viola Davis as the “mother of the blues” who battles white industry executives while cutting a studio record on a blistering hot day in 1927 Chicago.  During the session, Ma and her band members are also challenged by Levee, an ambitious trumpet player who is played by Chadwick Boseman in his last role before succumbing to cancer earlier this year.   Levee is eager to cut out on his own and is dead set upon adding some tempo to Ma’s music to broaden her appeal to urban audiences.   Ma is having none of it.  The film is based upon a play by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson and largely mirrors the stage format, except for excerpts of still photos which function as the film’s instrumental solos and brief external scenes serving as a chorus of racism permeating the world outside the studio.  Wilson called the Blues ‘the wellspring of my art.”  Ma Rainey probably wasn’t really first in Wilson’s mind, but she embodied the lifeline which the blues provided to a generation which scholar Angela Davis described as “a mediator between historical disappointment and the new social realities of an evolving African American community.”  As Ma puts it: “You don’t sing to feel better.  You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.”  For Wilson and Ma Rainey, hearing someone sing blues communicates a beauty and a nobility to [see] what in essence was their struggle simply to stay alive.  For Levee, however, playing the blues is used at worst to manipulate those around him, and at best as a path to escape a life constantly constricted by walls impeding any semblance of a fair shake.  The acting by the ensemble cast led by Davis and Boseman is near flawless.  Director George C. Wolfe employs his Broadway chops to deliver a movie that feels like a movie but adheres to the dialogue cadence of a stage performance which maintains its original emotional and intellectual intensity.   The result is again early season award buzz for Ms. Davis and perhaps the finest performance of Chadwick Boseman’s all too short career.  The actor displays a range far superior to his prior leads as he dances between aggressor and victim, hater and lover, and hope and despair. The film is fittingly dedicated to Boseman as a “celebration of his artistry and heart.”    

So, on my ski trail rating system, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”  earns my highest Black Diamond ski trail rating.   This play to film conversion is no “12 Angry [white] Men”; it is a tour de force of the nobility and heartbreak of blues.  As only a Marsalis family member could pull off, music producer and composer Branford Marsalis avoids simple copycat voiceovers by re-packaging Ma Rainey’s sound in a way which retains authenticity yet resonates with today’s audience. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman avoid turning their roles into caricatures and get you down and dirty in 1927 Chicago in raw, heartfelt performances.  

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is rated R for language, brief sexuality, violence, and the rigorous downing of a bottle Coke.  

This is Mark Harrington for KPCW’s Holiday Film Review