‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is an emotionally-charged must-see that features Chadwick Boseman’s best performance ever
Netflix’s powerful work, based on the August Wilson play, is certain to find Oscar attention thanks to Boseman and Viola Davis in the leads.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Photo: Netflix
By Jason Guerrasio
As “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens, two Black boys run through the dark woods. A barking dog is heard in the background. You are to believe director George C. Wolfe is giving us another harsh look at racism in America in the 1920s.
But out of nowhere, a few torches light up around the boys, revealing the smiles on their faces. As the camera turns and the kids run off, you see a line of people waiting to go into a tent to see blues legend Ma Rainey perform.
It’s one of the best starts to a movie I’ve seen in a long while.
From there, Wolfe gets out of the way and lets his actors tell the story. And you would too if you were adapting the work of esteemed playwright August Wilson.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an adaption of Wilson’s powerful stage play that focuses on Rainey (played ferociously by Viola Davis), the “Mother of the Blues,” and her band as they record her gritty music in a hot and steamy Chicago studio.
Much of the focus is on the band — made up of trombone player and bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo), piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — as they discuss the ins and outs of their lives in a very run down and claustrophobic rehearsal room.
(L-R) Michael Potts, Chadwick Boseman, and Colman Domingo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
(L-R) Michael Potts, Chadwick Boseman, and Colman Domingo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Photo: David Lee/Netflix
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a harrowing look at racism that’s sadly still relevant today
So if you thought the movie’s sleight opening meant the story would not delve into issues like racism, oppression, and class you would be wrong. But what the opening slowly reveals is that the characters we are about to meet are Black people who believe they deserve to buy into the American dream. However, even with their ambition and savviness, the truth is they are still subjugated to the whims of white men.
The perfect example of this is Levee. The youngest member of the band, he’s also the most confident and confrontational, outside of Ma. When we first meet him, he’s soaking in the morning sun of a beautiful Chicago day and has his eye on a new pair of shoes.
He enters the rehearsal room gloating about his new purchase to his bandmates, a not-so-hidden jab to them that he believes he’s above them or at least is destined to be. The guys can’t help but laugh at Levee when he informs them that the white owner of the recording studio, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), wants him to write music for him. (But his band members are skeptical and for good reason. By the end of the film, we see what happens to Levee’s music. It’s whitewashed and given to a white singer and band; an example of Black culture stripped and rebranded for a mainstream audience).
Back inside the rehearsal studio, Ma’s white agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) is patently waiting for her to appear. When she finally does arrive in her automobile, a contrast to her band members who are seen walking up to the studio doors, she makes quite an entrance: Ma gets into a car accident outside of the studio, complains about how hot it is in the studio, and demands a coke before she sings any songs. Irvin scrambles to make Ma happy, but like Levee, Ma has false bravado. The reality is this white man is tending to her because she makes him money. The difference between Ma and Levee is she knows this.
The rehearsal room and the recording studio are the main locations of the movie. In both we learn about these characters wants, needs, hopes, dreams, and many times the horrific memories of their past.