“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Movie Review


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     Something special typically happens when you bring together actors, writers, and directors who find a way to work at the height of their powers while collaborating on the same film.  For the audience, such an event can be a magical and often transformative experience where we become engrossed by the lives of characters we may not have known otherwise.  “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of those films.  Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film is based off the 1982 play by the late August Wilson, whose play “Fences” was also brought to the screen by actor/director Denzel Washington in 2016 and garnered Viola Davis an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Davis is back, now as the title character, delivering another awards worthy performance, though I’d be hard pressed to say I liked it better than her award winning turn as an emotionally broken wife in “Fences”.

     Perhaps this is because her co-star, the late Chadwick Boseman, outshines her in a scene stealing role that is almost certain to lead to a posthumous Oscar nomination with a strong case for winning.  Often times, when a film is adapted from a stage play, there are a series of speeches designed to create the necessary emotional pitch the writer and director want conveyed to the audience in order to drive the story.  In “Fences”, it was Davis whose character delivered those lines, here it’s Boseman and his ambitious trumpet player who brings the kind of deep rooted anger and ferocity akin to a slow burning fuse which could explode at any moment.

     Wilson’s play is based on real life characters and events, though much of the drama is fictionalized.  Ma Rainey was indeed one of the first African-American Blues singers during the time frame the film takes place in.  And she did record an album for Paramount Records in Chicago as the story depicts, but the band we learn a lot about during the film and the events that take place are fictional.  Likely meant as a conduit for telling a story about race in America at the time and the parallels that are still prevalent today.

     Running at a brisk 94 minutes, Wolfe opens the film with what appears to be two young people running from someone or something in a forrest.  Sadly, because they are black, the first thought that runs through your head isn’t positive given the time period and the likely hood they are running or escaping for their lives.  Fortunately, they are simply making their way to a Ma Rainey concert in Georgia, where we see for the first time our title character belting one of her famous tunes.  And she’s quite the spectacle with flamboyant costumes and generously applied grease paint covering her face.  It’s Viola Davis at her peak, showing instantly the kind of range and presence most actors will never come close to achieving.  

     A montage of news clippings indicates her rise to stardom and the impending record deal that brings us to 1927 Chicago where we meet up with the band on the day they will record her first album.  Made up of three older gentleman and the previously mentioned younger upstart, the band is led by Cutler (Colman Domingo), along with Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee (Boseman).  Upon arrival, they are met by Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who leads them to a basement level rehearsal room while they wait for Ma’s arrival.  

     And instantly we sense the tension between the fast talking and less experienced Levee and the rest of the band.  Much like a conversation would go today between a youngster and a veteran employee in virtually any profession.  Levee is stock full of dreams that see him writing his own songs and leading his own band.  As if his time playing behind Ma is merely a stepping stone.  Of course his older counterparts remind him of the difficulties facing black people and the difficult barriers in front of him where only white people possess the power and financial backing necessary to ascend in the manner he believes he will.  Cutler laughs off much of what Levee says, as Toledo takes the opportunity to inject his belief that young black folks put too much of an emphasis on “having a good time” rather than putting in the hard work it takes to succeed.  Good advice for any young person, especially today.

     The group ultimately unites with Ma and her traveling party that includes her lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), as they make their way to the recording studio.  Immediately, Ma makes her presence known to everyone, particularly Irvin, who has the ongoing responsibility of keeping her happy and ensuring everything she asks for is taken care of with no excuses.  It’s clear Ma is well aware of the money those involved in the record business are making from her songs, and she has every intention of getting everything that is coming to her with the constant threat of walking out and simply going back on tour in the south where she enjoys a fervent fan base.  Nothing ever comes easy in this story.  In each and every scene, the characters seem to be involved in sort of struggle.

     While “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features two of the best performances of the year by Davis and Boseman, the story as presented left me wishing for more.  What we get is merely a day in the life, where yes, significant events happen, but there is this feeling that much of it could have been truncated into a first or second act.  Perhaps the story could have been expanded to include more about Ma and her tour, which would welcome several more singing numbers, as well as backstory on her rise and her relationships with her back up band.  The film moves through all of that in about five minutes, choosing instead to focus solely on the dialogue at the recording studio.  

     Now don’t get me wrong, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is excellent and clearly one of the best films of the year, but as the most interesting character on screen, I had hoped for a bit more exploration of Ma and her career in addition to everything else.  It’s as if we are watching a story about a musical icon but have been shorted on the music itself.  Imagine if 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” featured just one song from Queen.  Would that have been satisfying?  And if it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a Ma Rainey biopic of some kind, then that is truly a shame.  One of the best moments in the film is the performance of the song that gives the film its title.  Given the nature of what unfolds later, I think it’s clear more moments like that would have at least brought forth a much needed positive vibe.  But then again, the topic of race, which is what this film is clearly intent on defining itself by, isn’t exactly a topic that lends itself to the depiction of happy moments.  As well it shouldn’t.  GRADE: A-