Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Review
Updated: Apr 6
"The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world..."Ma Rainey "Mother of the Blues" laments a little more than halfway through, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
In an unjust society, it's been brought to light for some and a reminder for others, how the blues was an outlet for Black people to ensure their legacies and histories lived on forever. Now, thanks to director, George C. Wolfe, playwright, August Wilson, producer, Denzel Washington, and the entire cast and crew, Ma Rainey will exist forever and audiences everywhere will know her voice and who she was: a tough woman who demanded respect in an era where Black people didn't have anything, much less a Black woman who could sing.
The one-hour-and-thirty-four-minute long film is about a sweltering hot day in Chicago, 1927. Ma and her band plan to meet at a recording studio to record new songs; although, the story truly unfolds when the music isn't playing. What it's really about is racism and power, and how it affects every character, besides Ma's white managers, who want her to sign contracts giving them control over her music.
Ma is often depicted as a "my way or highway" gal by her casual tardiness, or stubborn demands, such as having a cold coca-cola or she won't sing, but it all has to do with her reclaiming power and fighting for her right as a musician, and Black woman. Viola Davis's performance as Ma Rainey is a reverent resurrection of the blues singer who sported horse-hair wigs, gold teeth, and dark runny makeup. She conveys the strengths of Ma when in the public eye, and the vulnerable moments alone that make Ma's understanding of the hateful world she lives in come to light despite her fame. She compares her singing to being a whore, and believes she is not cared about---only her voice, which they want.
Among Ma's band is Levee, a young man, who consistently bickers with everyone about his dreams of having his own band and music. He's a youngster, wanting things done his way, being the talented charming man that he is; however, the reality of the world is also consistent in refusing his wishes, which forces him to be an unpderaid lonely musician, fighting an evil past that's caused him to lose faith in everything but his music. Like Ma, Levee embodies the racism in America, but unlike Ma who manages to be somewhat successful in her position, he is not. He's given promises never made despite his talents because of his skin color, and it's this unbelievable truth existing in America that pushes Levee off the rails and to his downfall. Chadwick Boseman's last performance as Levee is nothing but incredible for his emotional monologues, quick, witty dialogue, and character development from an innocent Levee's dreams to his violent breaking point, which essentially leaves him with nothing.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a dynamic film adaptation of the award-winning 1982 play. It is a film beyond a beautiful big bluesy voice, but about a woman nearing the end of her career, who avoids signing over the only thing she has---her source of power and respect; it's more than a movie about band memebrs who argue and disagree, it's about how their frustrations as colored men living in a racist world festers within them and outside the rehearsel walls; it's not about an impatient trumpeter who daydreams, it's about his story, embodying the stories of Black musicians in the 20s and 30s, who were not given success, respect, or rightful pay, but how they were paid off, while record labels profited on their music. This film is about these indivudals' stories, reminding us of the hardships Black women and men have faced, and the stories, whether it be years ago or today, that haven't been told.