There are a lot of reasons why “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” should be on the top of your viewing list in the last weeks of 2020.
For a large percentage of viewers, the biggest one might well be that the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-nominated play, which debuts on Dec. 18, turned out to be the final film appearance of Chadwick Boseman. For others, it might be the appeal of seeing fan-favorite diva Viola Davis sink her acting chops into another meaty role, while music aficionados may be drawn by the role itself – a real-life blues legend whose known bisexuality could, in turn, draw LGBTQ viewers curious to see how that aspect of her life is handled by the film.
Whether or not any of those things are a hook for you, there is one inescapable reason for watching. At the end of a year in which Black experience in America has been thrust to the forefront of our cultural attention, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” might well be considered a must-see for any American concerned for the state of their nation by virtue of its “blackness” alone.
It’s true that the streaming universe has no shortage of such content. But what the new Netflix film brings to the table is something rare in an entertainment landscape that favors the new, now, and next over the echoing memories of a time gone by – a work of weight and import, crafted with meticulous artistry by one of the most significant Black theater artists of the 20th century at the peak of his skills, and carrying with it all the insight of a lifetime spent negotiating the racial divide during some of the greatest cultural upheaval in recent memory.
“Ma Rainey” covers a short window in the life of its titular blues icon – just a few hours, really – but it uses that brief snapshot to explore a vast landscape of topics, as the singer and her band convene for a recording session on a hot Chicago day in 1927. The singer, well-known for her tempestuous lifestyle and “difficult” behavior, is late to arrive, leaving her musicians to kill time in reminiscence and debate, while her white album producers stew and fret over the delays to their schedule. When she arrives, she comes with an entourage; a pretty dancer from her tour, now her latest arm candy, and a stuttering nephew she insists must record a spoken introduction to a song. With all the players in place, the afternoon’s work can finally begin, but interruptions ensue and tensions are running high, inevitably sparking heated conflicts and festering confrontations – not the least of which center around Levee, the band’s hot-headed young trumpeter, who has musical ambitions of his own and an ego to rival Ma Rainey herself.
That synopsis is the blueprint for everything we see in the film – but it would be disingenuous to imply that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is uneventful. A lot of momentous things happen; revelations are made, rivalries are stoked, motivations are unmasked, and actions are taken that can never be taken back. Nor is it all heavy going; within the drama and the passion is woven a fair share of tempering humor and even moments of unblemished joy. And underneath it all, like an ancient spring buried just below the surface, bubbles the steady and unbroken effect exerted by the subtext of race.
Playwright Wilson wrote “Ma Rainey” as part of what would be a 10-play cycle documenting black life in America throughout the 20th century, informed by a childhood in which he experienced first-hand the grip of poverty exacerbated by inequality and inspired by the blues music he had loved from an early age. It’s not a biography of its title character; rather, it’s a fictional exploration of themes that spread, like fractals, from the exploitation of black artists – of black voices – by white culture, to reveal the subtle but insidious effects of racial oppression.
When I write about film, I usually try to remove myself from the discussion; but as a white writer, it’s not possible for me to comment on how “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” conveys Black experience. I can say that, to me, it felt powerfully authentic, that it moved me, and that I believed I held a deeper empathy at the end of it. I might also be able, as a gay man, to recognize and relate to the familiar patterns, charted so clearly by Wilson throughout his play, that frequently mark the internal politics of the oppressed – the jockeying for positions of favor, the bitterness of the rejected, the misdirection of frustration and anger toward self and each other – and the further conflicts that arise between generations as that frustration and anger grow in the face of a system built on keeping you down.
I can certainly say that those brought in for Boseman or Davis will have no reason to be disappointed.
Davis has nothing to prove, and nothing to lose, which makes her perfect to capture the beautiful monster that Wilson created in his vision of Ma Rainey. She is every inch the sullen, confrontational diva, exacting, petty, and sometimes cruel; yet her every moment onscreen conveys the absolving truth that the only way to claim power from an oppressor is to make him fear you – along with the terrible thrill that comes of living on that dangerous edge.
As for Boseman, his performance here can only serve to cement his status as a legendary talent, taken too soon. As the complex, conflicted, driven, and dangerous Levee, he is electrifying; he instills a deliberately polarizing figure with total humanity, while never losing the edge that makes him an antagonist for almost every character around him. His work is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that he was dying of colorectal cancer when he filmed it – something perhaps evidenced by a gaunt appearance, but in no way by the intensity and passion of his performance.
The rest of the cast is made up of less familiar faces, but they form a solid ensemble that’s every bit as capable as the stars they support. Behind the camera, director George C. Wolfe does an outstanding job of keeping the film grounded in its theatrical origins while giving it an expanded feel for the screen – mostly accomplished through stylistic choices rather than expanding scenes or settings – and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson provides an adaptation that is right in tune with that approach.
When you add the musical contributions of Branford Marsalis and a handful of stellar renditions of some of Rainey’s classic blues songs, you have more than enough ingredients to make a damn good movie.
Considering that, perhaps what I can say about “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” might prove to be the best reason of all to watch it – it’s one of the most thoroughly well-rounded, excellently made films of the year.
And if it helps you get a little closer to understanding what it’s like to be Black in America, then so much the better.
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