Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

From its brilliantly conceived opening scene to its tragic conclusion, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is consistently a film about the passion that goes in to music. Based on an August Wilson play and following legendary blues singer, Ma Rainey and her band as they spend a day attempting to record an album, George C. Wolfe’s film is an emotionally powerful homage to black music and all the deeply complex emotions and experiences that black artists bring to their craft. 

Being adapted from a stage play, the film is naturally driven by the dialogue and performances. And both are a big part of what makes it stand out. The script is chock full of soul bearing monologues and meaningful exchanges that are written so powerfully that one’s investment in the film is almost entirely centered around fascination over what will be said next. We get to learn a lot about each character in such a short amount of time and see all the joyous inconsistencies that make each of their musical performances unique. Many conversations are had about who their music should even be for and Ma’s near-insistence on being difficult is extraordinarily compelling as an act of protest towards how white America commodifies her achievements. Viola Davis is mystifying in the title role, bringing her signature confidence and command to the fabled singer but with the complex, subtly portrayed traits of a diva showman and mother of lost souls constantly thinking about numerous matters at once. Glynn Turman, one of this reviewer’s personal favorite actors, is present with as naturalistic a presence as ever and Colman Domingo delivers every line with sharp fire. But the performance that will have everyone talking (and likely watch the film for in the first place), is that of the late Chadwick Boseman, playing trumpet player and aspiring artist, Levee Green, in his final on-screen film role. And by some bittersweet miracle, it’s his best performance. The complexity Boseman brings to the role is labyrinthine and he effortlessly reveals new layers to Green with every scene. He’s childlike, devilishly charismatic, lovably ambitious, quietly sensitive, painfully unstable and harboring unfathomable pain. Very few characters ever feel as real and alive on screen as Green does with Wolfe often putting the camera front and center on Boseman’s face for long periods of time to live in all the pain and glory that bursts from within him during the character’s show-stopping monologues. It’s a damn beautiful performance and one that is heartbreaking to watch knowing we’ll never receive another from this truly gifted actor. 

Wolfe’s direction of the film is quite subtle. He never goes for flashy shots but always picks them intelligently for optimal capturing of all of the big, bursting emotions he’s mining from the actors. His blocking is suitably intricate (this is adapted from a play after all) and the camera work method frequently changes to match the varying intensity of it. Taking place across only 2 sets for the vast majority of its runtime, the film is, unsurprisingly, somewhat stagey in appearance. The film constantly looks over lit, like you can see the stage lights above and robbing the visual aesthetic of some much needed light and shadow contrast. The lack of wide shots can be somewhat jarring as well. But the set and costume designs are masterful and the film undeniably has a constant rhythm to it enhanced by the editing. The robust style and emotional rawness of the whole affair invests one in the material so greatly that the somewhat theatrical appearance is more of an afterthought. 

The film’s resolution is so quick and somewhat hasty that it at first seems difficult to discern what stories were being told about the characters. But then the infuriating, gut punch of the ending (my personal vote for best of the year so far) speaks powerful volumes and stirs the realization of what story the film was actually using the characters to tell. It shows how black people simultaneously have the most to gain and the most to lose from pursuing creative expression and how special that tends to end up making their art. We see how every facet of Ma Rainey and her band’s personalities and interrelationships form their musical identity and instill it with a complex passion that is at once desperate and cathartic. It’s an incredibly powerful and stirringly articulate story that has the power to make one think differently about how experience shapes expression and potentially enrich some viewers appreciation of black music. The film hits notes of love, pain, jubilation, tragedy, passion, madness, conflict, compromise and collaboration all in a single bar. Essentially, it IS the blues. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deserves a standing ovation.

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