Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman are full of soul, passion, blues in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Photo from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
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Grade: 5.0/5.0

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” takes viewers into the heart of blues music through its titular protagonist and the musicians in her band. The film is adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name and tells the story of the mother of the blues, Gertrude Pridgett, famously known as Ma Rainey. The play was one of Wilson’s first to gain recognition; the playwright would later go on to leave a mark on American theater through his portrayal of Black life in 20th century America in plays such as “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” 

The film takes place on a hot summer’s day in 1927 Chicago, where Rainey and her accompanying band members record songs at the fictional Hot Rhythm Recordings. In a seemingly normal afternoon, incessant squabble and musical artistry take place under one roof. The music of the film, whether it be Rainey’s intoxicating contralto voice or the upbeat jazz between scenes, helps the story come alive.

The film begins with a flamboyant performance by Rainey, and Viola Davis plays the legend in all her splendor. Adorned with gold teeth and draped in unwavering confidence, Davis emulates the strong musician and businesswoman that Rainey was with full assurance. In her interactions with other characters, especially her white manager (Jeremy Shamos) and recording studio owner (Jonny Coyne), she demands the utmost respect. This is not the first time Davis has brought one of Wilson’s characters to life; the actress starred in the film adaption of “Fences,” earning her an Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2017.

Although Rainey is the queen of every scene she’s in, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a driven trumpet player with big, possibly naive dreams for his own music career, is the film’s deuteragonist. Unsurprisingly, Boseman poured his heart and soul into the role, just as he’s done with others. Levee’s monologues make the audience hold its breath, while all the characters around him can’t help but fall silent — whether in marvel, in sympathy or in pain, it’s hard to say, but he is captivating in every sense of the word. Boseman balances wide-eyed ambition, quick-witted temper and sorrow in a way that is tear-jerking yet grin-inducing. With Levee as Boseman’s final performance before his passing from cancer August of this year, Boseman leaves fans with a divine gift of his artistry and zeal. 

Although at different stages in their careers and lives, both Rainey and Levee are characters of defiance. They refuse to be seen as anything but the talented musicians they are. Even at Rainey’s level of success, she constantly has to remind people of who she is and her value. Levee attempts to do the same, but he lacks the royal air Rainey possesses. 

The juxtaposition of these two characters is the marvel of the film and a study of self-worth, self-reliance and impression management. The Black musicians seek to make themselves their own but are weighed down by the chains of the white executives who produce and manage their music. The bane of their existence as musicians is that they are seen as nothing more than entertainment machines, which Rainey describes through a powerful monologue in the film’s second half. 

The supporting characters, such as philosophical Toledo (Glynn Turman) and sensible Cutler (Colman Domingo), are central to the film’s portrayal of the Black experience by highlighting intraracial conflict. Even with all the drama, however, many of the interactions between the characters have an undeniable comedy, and the cast oozes with chemistry. The film has its own pulse, with its well-paced scenes capturing the rhythm of Wilson’s writing. 

Most of all, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the story of the Black condition in 20th century America. The film conveys the hopes and desires of Black Americans during the Great Migration, the inescapable oppression they experienced and the precarious promise of success. Although the details and supporting characters are works of fiction from the mastermind August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” pays homage to a musical legend by showing the odyssey that was her everyday life. 

Contact Daniella Lake at [email protected].