Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the long-awaited adaptation of the hit stage play, written by August Wilson by the same name. Aside from a few scenes in the beginning of the film, it is blocked and feels very much like a play, which provides an intimacy between the characters and the audience that most films have issues attaining.
This film takes place over the course of one ridiculously hot day, in 1927 Chicago. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) gather with Ma Rainey’s band including Levee (in his final performance Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in a sweltering hot recording studio in order to record her track known as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
After arriving late and verbally sparring with the white owner of the Southside recording studio, Sturdyvant (Jonathan Coyne) over seemingly trivial details, the band and Ma record the song. It’s obvious that Sturdyvant has very little empathy or respect for the Black members of the band and Ma herself and often negotiates through her manager Irwin (Jeremy Sharmos)
During rehearsal, prior to Ma’s tardy arrival, trumpeter Levee attempts to edge himself further up the ranks of the band and attempts to manipulate the band and the white “bosses” into recording his arrangement of the song. Friction between Levee and the rest of the band members is illustrated early into the day and progresses into a huge falling out at the end of the session and the film.
As Levee grates against the rest of the band and sometimes Ma herself, Chadwick Boseman’s mind-blowing performance begins to shine and stand out amongst the rest of the ensemble. Very few performances have captured such an incredible transformation as this one, similar to Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood, or Cherlize Theron’s performance in Monster.
Chadwick Boseman puts so much effort into every detail of this character, by the way he walks, his facial expressions, and his manner of speech. Levee is ambitious and somewhat problematic as he argues with the band and sneaks off for a romantic tryst with Ma’s lover Dussie. Boseman performs at least two amazing, haunting and captivating monologues that stand out from the rest of the dialogue.
The film is slow going, but has its moments, yet both Boseman and Davis make it a must-see. Ma has an incredible presence and knows that regardless of what Sturdyvant seems to believe, she is, in fact, the boss and this is HER recording for HER song and the band, as well as the studio owner all need to fall in line and do as she says.
Viola Davis, who also starred in August Wilson’s Fences, BECOMES Ma and carries herself as the unbelievably talented music artist in an authentic and astonishing performance. Any Oscar buzz surrounding Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis are certainly well deserved.
While I wasn’t a fan of the film itself and I did not appreciate the stage play feel of the film, I did absolutely love both the late Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis’s performances and that’s why this is a REEL FILM TO SEE.
Joia DaVida reports on the entertainment business in both Chicago and Los Angeles.