Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Features Brilliant Acting




Directed by George C. Wolfe

Netflix, 94 minutes, R (language, sexual situations)





Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom* began life as a 1982 play from August Wilson, so it’s only fair that the slightly altered movie version was directed by Tony Award-winning George C. Wolfe. If you’re looking for something that is perhaps unfair, Chadwick Boseman lost out on a Best Acting Oscar for his last film. (For the record, I too would have voted for Anthony Hopkins’ astonishing turn in The Father.)


Filmed plays generally don’t impress Academy Award voters. Ma Rainey’s got five nominations but did not carry off any of the major awards. Ironically it won for costume design and makeup/hairstyling, the most “cinematic” elements in what is essentially a filmed stage performance. It does, however, escape the claustrophobic feel many plays succumb to on the screen. That’s because Wolfe zoomed the cameras in tight to capture the intense expressiveness of the actors in ways that could have easily been lost live for those sitting in the cheap(er) seats.


The tale–most of which is fictionalized–takes place on a single day in Chicago: July 2, 1927. Rainey (Viola Davis) was at the height of her powers as the “Mother of the Blues.” This gave her more leverage than most Black women had (though nothing like we see in the film). Rainey is presented as a Black prima donna who could toy with White men. She shows up for a recording session at the Paramount on her time, not the scheduled one, and when her White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) meekly tries to nudge her along, she tells him how things will go down. And lord help studio head Johnny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant) when he pushes hard; Ma pushes harder. You name the shot and Ma takes it, be it sending out for Coca-Colas she gluttonously chugs, dictating arrangements, or commanding that the spoken intro to a song be delivered by her stuttering nephew no matter how many takes are necessary.


Still, Ma knows there are limits, something older bandmates Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Dawg (Michael Potts) also understand. Chicago wasn’t the Deep South, but it was just eight years removed from one of the 20th century’s worst race riots. Danger comes via the two whelps in the ensemble, the fetching Dussie Mae and the high-strung Levee Green (Boseman). Dussie, a character based loosely on Bessie Smith, is sexually alluring and seeks to parlay that into advancing herself, be it through some lesbian-charged flirtations with Ma or playing hard-but-not-too-hard-to-get with Levee.


Levee is the script’s most volatile character. He knows about white violence but his ego constantly trips his common sense. He pays no heed to warnings that Whites only kowtow when money is on the line. Levee thinks he doesn’t need the band or Ma. After all, Coyne has “promised” him Ma will do one of his arrangements and will probably buy several of his compositions. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Both Davis and Boseman are wonderful in the film. Davis is nearly unrecognizable as Ma, whom she presents as obese and sweaty with bad makeup and teeth. Yet she’s so in charge behind a mic that you’d never know that Maxayn Lewis actually did the vocals. And when her Ma is angry, the glare alone could melt the paint from the walls.


Boseman’s performance reminds us of what was lost when cancer took him at age 43. We see early on that’s he’s so hotwired he will self-combust, yet the conflagration is even more infernal than imagined. (That is, unless one has seen other August Wilson plays.) Boseman also walked a sags-in-the-middle tightrope between a talented musician and a naif street punk. In neither role does he see there is no net underfoot.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful viewing experience. Remember that most of the story is invented, as are all of the characters except Rainey and aforementioned Bessie Smith(ish) stand-in. You can learn more about the real Ma Rainey on Wikipedia than you can from the film. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington aimed at neither a biopic nor historical dramatization. Instead, the goal is to explore Black characters along the margins of a three-ringed Venn diagram where talent, moxie, and race overlap. The survivors know when to step away from the edges and retreat to safety; the victims do not. Even Rainey erred; she failed to recognize that her popularity would wane after 1927.


Rob Weir


The black bottom was an exuberant Jazz Age dance. I don’t know if Wilson intended a double entendre.   

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