In the opening scene of director George C. Wolfe’s film, based on a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, which is an adaptation of a 1982 stage play, two young men are running through some woods. They stop only when they reach a marquee announcing a performance by Ma Rainey. The camera swoops into the tent soaked in the blues.
The setting is Barnesville, Georgia. It’s 1927 and Ma Rainey is regaling the audience. This is one of only three settings in this musical drama that largely unfolds during one day in a recording studio in Chicago where Ma Rainey (sung by Maxayn Lewis) and the band are laying down some of her songs, including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Moonshine Blues.
Viola Davis is transformed into Ma Rainey, the sweaty singer with gold teeth and smudged eye makeup who was popularly referred to as the ‘Mother of the blues’. Her performance is both burlesque and startling. Ma Rainey is revered and feared by her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and band members, all but the youngest, the horn player. A very lean Chadwick Boseman plays Levee, the spotlight-stealing trumpeter who represents the younger, more commercially minded generation eager to fast-track to success.
The beats of the film retain a staged feel, palpable in the rapid banter between the band members and use of limited space. The principal characters are assigned a heartfelt monologue, with Boseman’s piece capturing years of hurt and persecution of the African-American community, symbolised by his obsession with a pair of new shoes. As one character says, “The coloured man, he is the leftovers”. This angst raises its head one annoyance at a time. Ma Rainey is uncompromising about her art. On stage she’s in charge. It’s the one place she knew she had respect.
Levee, on the other hand, is defiant, disrespectful. Not only does he argue with bandmates Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), he also breaks out of Ma’s musical arrangements and truly provokes Ma with his overt flirtation with Ma’s girl Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). There’s darkness and it needs the slightest provocation to reveal itself.
The final scene underlines the systemic exploitation and disrespect of Black artists by white management. As one character says, “You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s the way of understanding life. 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. Something’s been added by that song.”
The costumes and simmering tension, the musical arrangements, the studied playing of the instruments, Ma Rainey’s power and the passionate performances are the soul of a film dedicated to the late Boseman: ‘In celebration of his artistry and heart’.
In every way the film is an emotional tribute—to the blues, to Ma Rainey, to Boseman and to Black culture.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix.
Also read: Spontaneous warmth from two veteran bluesmen