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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Movie Review)

Chadwick Boseman’s swan song is an exceptional work of art.

About the Film

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was always earmarked as one of 2020’s most anticipated films.  Like any constellation, a prestige film needs all its stars aligned to create something spectacular.  End of year release date in the heart of Oscar season? Check.  Big screen adaptation of an acclaimed play from famed playwright August Wilson? Check.  Big stars lending their considerable mega wattage? Triple check!  Denzel Washington (who adapted another August Wilson play, Fences, to great acclaim) produces while Academy Award winner and national treasure Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey.  Then, there is the last star: The King himself, Chadwick Boseman. 

Chadwick Boseman…his name became synonymous with heartbreak in 2020.  Like a fossil preserved in amber, his last performance is frozen in the form of Levee, a talented but tempestuous trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s band.  Taking place over the course of a summer afternoon recording session in the 1920s, Ma Rainey battles Levee and her white manager for control over her music.  

On The Surface

The film is rated R.  There is strong profanity, and a brief but fully clothed love scene. There is also suggestive language about sex and race, as well as a same-sex relationship.

Beneath The Surface

Control

Ma’s white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio owner, Mel (Jonny Coyne) try in vain to shackle Ma to their schedule.  Irvin even tries convincing Ma to perform Levee’s rendition of her signature song, Black Bottom.  Ma doesn’t heed their words and counters with her own demands: she refuses to sing without having a cold Coca Cola and insists on her stuttering nephew doing the introduction of her song.     

Viola Davis portrays Ma as a singular force of pride and talent.  While Ma’s behavior comes off as uncontrollable and unruly, her music is also one of the few things she can control.  Ma’s music is sacred and her song, Black Bottom, is a tried-and-true savior.  During this time, most African Americans lacked upward mobility due to segregation and racism.  Music was one of the few avenues black people could squint and maybe see the American Dream.  Viola Davis’ performance pushes these unsaid truths onto the surface.

Exploitation

Even with music being one of the few viable paths for African Americans, it was a road paved with exploitation.  Ma doesn’t like recording because it’s like her voice is being hunted down and trapped.   As Ma sits in her car after her recording session, she looks resigned.  Uncivil but obedient, her voice was domesticated and tamed for people who don’t see her as a person. 

Like Ma, Levee is seeking to use his music as an elevator out his harsh present.  In addition to arranging a new rendition of Black Bottom, he has also written songs for the studio owner.  Aching for his own band, Levee seems willing to get close, then burned by the white power structure.  Chadwick Boseman’s prodigious talent allows him to play every note of Levee’s mercurial personality.  Levee’s transparent complexity shapeshifts from joking to disgusting to empathic.  Through Levee’s wild-eyed unpredictability, we see how implosive this exploitation was on black people’s collective community and psyche.  This is a fine final swan song for a beloved actor.  

Final Verdict

This is the right type of prestige film.  Buoyed by two stand performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is well-crafted, high achieving art.  Give Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman their Oscars now!  

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