Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne
Summer, Chicago, 1927. Ma Rainey’s band await her arrival at a recording studio to put her latest album The Black Bottom on record. Tensions rise between the four band members as gutsy trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman – Black Panther) tries to modernise some of the singer’s blues classics. Referred to by most as the “Mother of the Blues”, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis – Fences) has a reputation of being vile, rude and difficult to work with, a notion that is clearly all too familiar for her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who has been pulled in every direction to ensure she is happy and comfortable for the recording. Studio owner Sturyvant (Jonny Coyne) adds to the tension by making a side deal with Levee to record some of his own original songs, only to then turn his back on him, buy the music for minimum wage and have a white band record them instead.
Portrayed by powerhouse Viola Davis, Ma Rainey is an unpleasant, rude and all together foul person, elements that Davis perfects right from the start of the film. In the opening scene, where she is shown performing at an underground show in the Deep South, her spotlight is literally stolen by her trumpet player Levee. We know right away that Levee will pay for it.
Viola Davis is known for her work in The Help (2011), her Oscar-winning performance in Fences (2016) and more recently for the critically acclaimed drama series ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ (2014-2020). Black Bottom is unlike any of those, and as a result we see her in a completely different and challenging role.
Levee, outstandingly portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance, is a downtrodden, traumatised young man with high hopes and big dreams of becoming a successful songwriter and performer. Ma Rainey’s distaste for Levee’s antics is clear from the off, and as the story unfolds it is apparent that she is looking for a way to remove him from the picture entirely. Levee’s smooth, sexy and aggressive nature gets him in trouble constantly with every member of the ensemble. He is rebellious and ill-mannered, traits which Boseman excels at portraying throughout the entire piece.
Up until now we have seen Boseman perform in a wide variety of films, from his most famous role as T’Challa, King of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) to his biographical performance as the late great James Brown in Get on Up (2014). However, none of those performances can prepare you for what he puts into his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s a passionate, gritty and emotional performance, his outstanding take on the character only adding to the emotion already present from the knowledge that he was battling life-threatening cancer during the film’s production. His strength and passion for art was always going to be remembered, but perhaps it is showcased no more obviously than it is through this film.
The two lead performances hold the whole piece together. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, something that is obvious from the start thanks to it taking place entirely in one location and being incredibly heavy in dialogue. But at 94 minutes, the film is simply too short for a story of its type, and the narrative seems to be lacking the depth and backstory that could have made for a more powerful and more in-depth character study, which would have no doubt emphasised the fantastic performances of Davis and Boseman. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incredibly powerful character piece on the stage, but the film needed to delve deeper, whether it be in terms of additional information on the characters, more of a distinct narrative running throughout, a more creative edit or more distinct choices in the other aspects of the visual filmmaking.
The elements in the plot of racial injustice and discrimination within the arts are ever-powerful and sadly still relevant, and the outstanding performances spearheading the well written dialogue make this film what it is; the lack of substance is quickly forgotten about when watching Chadwick Boseman delivering one of the year’s great monologues. Intriguing and very watchable, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t the outstanding drama of 2020 but it does have some unmissable moments.