More than 90% of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is restricted to a cramped rehearsal room in Chicago, apart from the introductory scene. But that one is enough to set the tone for the rest of the film– both exciting and subdued, it’s a celebration of Black power and the acceptance of the cost it came at. And it’s Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman whose powerful performances drive this Oscar-contender with a finesse that demands to be recognized and revered.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on a 1982 play by August Wilson and stars the incredible Viola Davis as the legendary “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey. The film, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and directed by George C. Wolfe, is both a homage to a conflicting figure in the history of blues music and a subtle presentation of the rules of race and class dominated society.
The film starts with Ma Rainey performing in a tent-slash-theatre in the woods, surrounded by her community and singing without abandon with her kohl-ringed eyes closed and her silver dental work on display. But she swayed to the music, her ferocious presence palpable even before she goes all crazy with demands, seriously dividing viewers into whether they are impressed by her tenacity or disappointed by her abject moodiness and overwhelming brattiness.
The rest of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set on a sweltering day in 1927 in a tiny recording studio where Ma’s manager (Jeremy Shamos) is striving to keep the racist owner in check while catering to his client’s increasingly mercurial mood swings. Part of her band is right on time– Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts)– and are more than eager to follow instructions, perform, let Ma have all the limelight, and return home.
But the new blood in the band, the trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has a willfull attitude. He flirts without a care, especially with Ma’s latest girlfriend, is an impulsive shopper, and sure that his music is the only jewel in the band. While it is indeed true, his crass and rude behaviour make it hard to appreciate his skills. He is planning to start his own band and is confident that he will one up Ma soon.
Though Ma is antagonistic towards anyone who tries to share in her limelight, Levee manages to rile up everyone, even the viewers! Yep, that’s how good Chadwich Boseman is as he also ensures that his character still retains the sympathy of the audience as Levee is just another Black individual who donned a hard shell to fight the world determined to subdue him, just like Ma Rainey did. But the sinking feeling that Levee’s dreams are set to get a crude awakening is there from the get-go.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s titular character creates a different storm with her entry as she dishes out a list of demands after creating an unnecessary scene. She is tough and bold but to the point that she has turned into what she hates– someone daring to dominate her freedom. She does the same to her band, especially Levee. With her domineering presence and Levee smart-mouthing, tensions rise and it’s evident that no good will come of it.
While the script is smartly executed, it’s the lead star’s performances that keeps one hooked to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While Viola Davis is the living embodiment of perfection and portrays Ma with a power that stays long after the film is over, Chadwick Boseman as Levee is the emotional hook of the story. It’s his final performance that once again reminds of the wonder that has been taken from us too soon.