Film Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
There’s an extended monologue deep into Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) that cuts so deeply that we feel the pain sear into our hearts. Levee (Chadwick Boseman) – an ambitious, slick, and hot-tempered horn player – describes to fellow bandmembers a traumatic experience at the hands of racist white men. The camera slowly zooms in on Levee’s face as he juggles a multitude of conflicting emotions. On the outside, Levee has all the bravado in the world, constantly scheming to take his music all the way to the big time. But as we peer into his interior, we find a lost spirit struggling to stay afloat – haunted by a past that he can never fully escape.
It’s hard to ignore the air of melancholy that hovers above the film, since this is Chadwick Boseman’s final performance. His untimely passing was a shock to all, and as I watched him I felt an immense sadness and a sense of awe. Here was an actor that had all the potential in the world and was taken away with so much more to give. But outside of his slim frame, one would never have guessed what he was going through. Boseman delivers a powerful performance as Levee, full of energy and raw, pure emotion. He is part musical artist and part car salesman, able to talk his way into a room with a sly grin and a blast of his horn. Our eyes are always on him, seeing what he’ll do next.
But Levee is just one piece of an exceptional ensemble. On the other side of the stage is the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, played by a ferocious Viola Davis. With her tussled hair, running mascara, and heavy sweat, Davis plays Ma Rainey as a force of nature. She’s bigger than life, a diva who calls the shots and makes no compromises. She doesn’t hide the fact that she has a woman lover on the side (Taylour Paige) and insists that her stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown) lend his voice to her songs. When we meet Ma Rainey, she’s traveling to Chicago to record her music. It’s 1927, right on the cusp her going out of style. Levee insists on rearranging her songs with a more upbeat feel, but of course, she’s not having any of that. One of ongoing storylines is between the star singer and the horn player, both of whom want things done their own way.
Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Black Bottom is an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning stage show. Just as in a previous Wilson adaptation, the Denzel Washington-directed Fences (2016), the story involves a group of black characters trying to exist in a world where racism dominates much of their lives. Sure, Ma Rainey is treated like the star that she is, and Levee has immense talent, but it isn’t a mistake that white men own the recording studio. While Levee struts around talking a big game, his tone changes when he tries to get one of his songs recorded by white executives. The other members of the band – Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – taunt him for sucking up to “the man,” but is Levee simply doing what needs to be done to get ahead? Is the game playing him or is he playing the game?
The direction, cinematography, and production design makes a clear distinction between the worlds inside and outside of the studio. In the Chicago streets, everything is bathed in a golden light. Cars, people, and buildings shine under an art deco glow. Chicago is depicted with such a nostalgic perspective that it looks like it came straight out of a dream. Inside the studio is much different. The practice hall and recording room are dank with heat. Everybody is sweating – the muggy air holds a constant presence. We often find characters trying to open a locked door, an obvious metaphor for their lives. It’s as though the studio stands as a social prison, keeping these characters from stepping out and enjoying the rest of the world. Some members of the band want to finish the recording quickly just to get the hell out of there. While Ma Rainey is the big shot in the studio, when she’s outside she receives apprehensive glances by strangers, and when she gets into an auto accident a police officer immediately suspects her as a troublemaker.
There’s a building tension all throughout Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom where characters who’ve resigned themselves to their status in life clash against those desperate to break free. The final act may startle us for how dark it gets, but the structure of the narrative makes it so that is the logical conclusion. These are people who have suffered tremendously and use music as their only outlet – to not only fill their pockets with money but to feed their very souls. The fact that the majority of the runtime takes place in a single location does not dissipate how engaging it is.
I keep returning to Chadwick Boseman and how good he is here. I would not be surprised if his final appearance will garner him the biggest critical acclaim of his career. It’s a tragedy that his life was taken so soon, but he leaves an impact much larger than perhaps any of us can truly understand. As a curtain call, Boseman delivers yet another iconic black character.