Movie Plot – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions increase between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player, and the white management determined to keep the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues” under control. Based on the play of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson.
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writers: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman
Leevee Green vs. Ma Rainey
Levee Green thinks of himself as the most crucial member. The record producer of Ma Rainey, the great ancestor of his band, has chosen his swinging version of her most famous song to record. He also wants to record some of Green’s own songs. But when Ma appears in the studio herself, she quickly puts an end to Levee’s arrogant illusions that ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is played in any other way than she wants. Certainly the splashing intro of Levee goes on the shovel, because her nephew is allowed to say something about it. Only problem: he stutters.
These circumstances are mainly the stage for the subcutaneous tensions between the old guard in the 1927 blues music and the wave of swinging newcomers, but also those between the black musicians and the bosses who control the music world. Levee is the central figure of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In addition, it’s the very last film character of Chadwick Boseman, who died this year. We see how he can easily manipulate scenes, even though he is surrounded by many talented actors. Boseman enchants the camera with his charm. A shot in which you only see him listening is already a feast for the eyes. He plays it masterfully and splashingly at the same time.
The death of Boseman makes that there are many more eyes on this film than if he had still lived. And so the question soon arises how justified that is. It is also very conceivable that this will give him a Oscar. What he’s showing here certainly justifies that golden statue. With him a great acting talent has died. Let Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom open the eyes of anyone who doubts that. Boseman would always have been the star of this film, only now it gets even more deserved attention. It’s his best performance ever, and also the greatest acting I’ve seen this year. And I’m not saying that to honor him, but because this was an outstanding performance.
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey is anything but fictional. However, this is a film adaptation of a play of the same name about the historical blues singer. She was one of the very first black artists of significance, an exception in the United States of the twenties. Levee is a creation by writer August Wilson, who symbolizes the black artist in the margins, with all the talent and ambition in him. As a swinging trumpeter with the sound of the future, he is well ahead of his time. And what does that mean for a black man in this era? Well …
Viola Davis doesn’t have to show a lot of acting range for her title role, but she does go deep in intensity. One look of Ma Rainey pulverizes. And under the thick layer of make-up, the actress is made almost unrecognizable. A studio boss is annoyed immensely with her diva behaviour and she dominates the band.
The meaningful dialogues
With stage adaptations, the question is always whether it doesn’t simply look as if a couple of cameras have been put on a theater performance. At the beginning and end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom some additions have been made to legitimize the filming. The film floats mainly on pointed dialogues and solid acting languages. The images are slick, but not at its most cinematic. However, that fits just right with the film.
The dialogues is what intrigued me the most. It gave some backstory of the characters, and made you understand their behavior. Ma Rainey may be a diva, but you understand where she comes from. Same goes for Chadwick Boseman’s character, Leevee. On top of that, the stories are told in a way that keeps you interested. I’m always amazed when someone can catch your attention by their words. And I’ve said it before, Chadwick Boseman may get his Oscar for this one. One of the greatest dialogues was a monologue of him, and he gave it all while being in stage 3 of his cancer treatment. He’s a true artist.
The 20s in Chicago come to life thanks to its stunning production design. The racism is also noticeable all the time. Ma Rainey has armed herself against it in her own way while Levee tries desperately to stand up to it. Interesting film for those who love blues and for whom the fate of the black fellow man is close to his/her heart.