A film review by Craig J. Koban January 3, 2021

RANK# 13


2020, R, 94 mins.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey  /  Chadwick Boseman as Levee  /  Glynn Turman as Toledo  /  Colman Domingo as Cutler  /  Michael Potts as Slow Drag  /  Jonny Coyne as Sturdyvant  /  Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae  /  Jeremy Shamos as Irvin  /  Dusan Brown as Sylvester

Directed by George C. Wolfe  /  Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson


Netflix's MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM  - based on the 1982 August Wilson play - is set in Chicago of the Roaring Twenties and deals with black musicians trying to make names for themselves in a largely white controlled industry that wanted to use their music to make quick cash, even if it meant crudely exploiting them.  

There's definitely something disturbing at play here when it comes to how these businessman yearned to claim an essential part of African American culture - Jazz and Blues - as their own, but MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM also digs deeper than that in joyously celebrating the endlessly talented black performers that includes, yes, the titular and iconic blues singer from the decade in question.  As a complete package in dealing with the history of music, racism, exploitation, and a greater appreciation piece of the music contained within, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM paints a most fascinating - and timely - portrait of strife and fighting for what's rightfully yours. 

Produced by Denzel Washington as part of a larger 10 movie deal signed in 2013 (which included his Oscar nominated FENCES - also penned by August, incidentally - from a few years ago) and directed with great flair and a sensitive eye by George C. Wolfe (ANGELS IN AMERICA), MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM essentially tells two stories for the price of one.  The main thrust of the narrative involves the escalating tensions that begin to really boil over during an afternoon recording session in 1920's Chicago, with one group of musicians eagerly - and somewhat impatiently - waiting for the arrival the legendary "Mother of Blues" herself in Rainey (Viola Davies).  The opening sequence of the film set before this introduces us to Rainey's unique on stage magnetism as we see her hypnotize audiences at a concert in Georgia.  It's a tour de force bit of musical showmanship for the acclaimed singer, which also does a superb job of cementing what kind of ferociously independent minded, take no prisoners artist she was that wouldn't take any crap from any man.  This builds to her stress-laden journey to Chicago for the aforementioned recording sessions.  It doesn't start well with her arrival, which begins with a massive car accident right outside of the studios, making her late and frustrating not only her white manager and producing partners, but the larger group of other black artists that have been waiting...and waiting...and waiting for her arrival. 



The other subplot in question delves into the tight and tenuous dynamic that exists within this band, which includes the trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and the hot headed and impulsive trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman, in his last screen performance).  A majority of the film transpires within the tight, hot and semi-claustrophobic studio, which sort of fuels the tensions as the day moves on and Rainey herself becomes a tardy presence.  In the initial stages we see these men engage in all sorts of frivolous banter, which later begins to segue into darker matters involving their art and even the larger hemisphere of religion and societal racism at large.  The more seasoned members of the group seem ready and willing to perform when called upon when Rainey arrives, but Levee is easily the more troubling and impatient soul, who can't wait to venture out on his own and introduce the world to his impeccable solo talent.  As the long day only gets longer, the stresses of waiting for Rainey - and dealing with her diva-like requests - start to weigh heavily on the men, which boils over in surprisingly damaging ways.

There are multiple power struggles at play in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, the first of which involves Rainey's steadfast unwillingness to relinquish creative control of her music to white men, not to mention all of her stubbornly obsessive requests of them during the recording sessions (everything from having soda pop given to her at the snap of her fingers or insisting on having her stuttering nephew perform on the track, the latter request being greeted with dismay from the band and producer alike).  The other power struggle is between the bandmates themselves, which has more fuel added to the fire when their carefree conversations start to morph into dissections of the darker underbelly of living as a black person in early 20th Century America.  It's at these stages of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM that its theater roots start to shine through in allowing for various characters to engage in heated and passionate monologues about all of their hopes, aspirations, and anxieties in a world that frankly doesn't give a damn about them.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson's script adaptation really shines and becomes the star during these sections, which paints a hauntingly tragic portrait of the painful survival stories of these men and Rainey alongside their current struggles with these producers to make their music felt and heard.  

Of course, the film is a plentiful, actor's paradise work that allows for many of them to really sink and cut their teeth into many of the monologues given to them, all of which creates a rich tapestry of deep personal wounds for these souls.  I liked one involving Toledo's inspired bit of food therapy that also metaphorically hints at the black experience in America of them being societal "leftovers."  The language used here is simple and plain spoken, but evocatively speaks volumes.  Perhaps the crown jewel of monologues here comes from Boseman's Levee himself, which piggybacks off of an earlier one from him talking about witnessing his mother being sexually assaulted by a dozen and a half white men.  Things go even deeper during his second monologue, which begins with a slow and methodical attack on Cutler's religious fixation and how his God was completely AWOL from saving his mother and himself.  Levee reveals in an utterly painful confession how the white men that abused his mother later lacerated him in the chest as a child, forever branding him.  It's one of the most emotionally gut wrenching speeches in a movie in an awfully long time. 

Boseman has always been a superlative on screen performer, but he takes it to a whole different level with his challenging and layered work as the pride filled and wounded Levee, who emerges as the most fascinatingly complex character of the whole piece.  He's the kind of eager go-getter that's hungry for industry recognition and is indeed an endlessly talented musician.  But he also knows that he occupies an industry and larger world outside of it that simply doesn't allow for easy advancement for his kind.  And the film has this sinister way of creeping up on viewers to show the whirlwind of pain and suffering that this man has gone through in life, which has empathetically informed his distrust of white men and hatred of God and religion.  I think with a lesser actor at the helm then Levee could have come off as an acid tongued, one note villain (his actions later on take a morose turn to violence), but the script and Boseman's mesmerizing turn make Levee more of a layered personality and a victim more than a cruel figure of spite that wants to see the world burn.  The actor evokes all of the conflicted facades of this doomed artist and it's a heartbreaking portrait of sorrow and fury.  It's arguably his finest screen performance that might net him a posthumous Oscar. 

And lets not forget about Ma Rainey herself in Viola Davis, whose been so damn good in so many movies over the years that it's frankly become difficult to count (let's not forget she won Best Supporting Actress for her searing work in FENCES).  Rainey is simply a force of nature throughout the film, and Davis has a field day with the gloriously showy role and effortlessly relays to viewers why she was such a demanding and authoritative figure of influence in her time.  And the other supporting players are pitch perfectly cast as well, giving MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM one of the finest acting ensembles in a long time.  Because this film exists as a pure showpiece of its actors and the exquisitely rendered dialogue, this unfortunately leads to one of my minor nitpicks (as was the case with FENCES): There are times when it feels more like a contained play than a movie itself, and Wolfe tries as he can to create some visual interest in the spare settings.  I also think that considering the sheer enormity of the ideas and themes at play that the film's running time of a scant 90-plus minutes feels a tad too truncated. 

Having said that, though, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM remains a thoroughly enthralling and powerful period drama, one that joyously covets the real-life musical talent contained within while evoking the grim realities of not only the music industry of a hundred years ago, but also the toxic racism that existed in the era...and it sadly still permeates today.  The story of these artists rings as truly and resonantly for their time as it does our own, and MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM finds this difficult to nail middle ground of giving us a portal into yesterday while echoing the racial concerns of today...and while not feeling too obvious, showy or preachy about it.  It's a modestly scaled film that deals with large scale issues, and it reminds us that the wounds of yesteryear still sting in our contemporary world.  That, and MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM also becomes an unexpectedly sad watch because of the presence of Boseman himself, a supremely endowed talent that was taken from us all far too soon just as he was getting seriously good.  His performance here will thankfully live forever. 

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