Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Chadwick Boseman was only just getting started. He will win awards for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Lots of them. And it’s heartbreaking that he is no longer around to accept them in person. This is a final performance for the ages, an emotionally scarred young musician confident he is destined for bigger and better things than playing the trumpet for a bossy, condescending blues matron who has no appreciation for his input. Regrettably, his work is in service of a film that falls short of excellence. It shares a lot of structural limitations with Regina King’s “One Night in Miami”, which I preferred, and practically every play that has ever been adapted for the big screen. Scenes drag on for an eternity, much of the action is confined to one, maybe two rooms and talking is the primary way of generating anything resembling narrative momentum. That can get tedious. Sure, tempers flare and conflicts escalate dramatically, especially whenever Levee brags about his intentions to leave and form his own band. But a few passionate monologues can’t fully offset the loquacious fluff in between. In spite of its relatively brief 94-minute running time, it still feels like not enough actually happens to justify spending a full afternoon in the basement of Mr. Sturdyvant’s recording studio.

The other problem the film runs into is that none of these characters are all that likeable. Ma Rainey especially, played by an indisputably committed Viola Davis, gets perilously close to a caricature of an empowered Black woman whose status allows her to take certain liberties in her interactions with her white acquaintances that others in her position at the time would not have gotten away with. Her account of why she behaves the way she does makes complete sense, but her scenes don’t get any less grating even in that context. She seems to be under the impression that she is doing her stammering nephew a favor by getting him to record the opening for her signature song, but never bothers to ask him how he feels about being put on the spot and having to do it over and over again until he gets it right. As for Levee, his volatility is explained in a riveting monologue about a childhood experience involving his parents, a trauma that leaves his bandmates shaken but only until they pick up on and vocally disapprove of his flirting with “Ma’s girl”. As for the other three members of the band, they all get in some great lines, but the script ultimately isn’t all that interested in their experiences or opinions.

Some of the messaging here is odd. On one hand, this is clearly meant to be a showcase of Black musicians in 1920s Chicago, the boom of blues and jazz, and how they have to depend on white producers to bring it to the masses. But it repeatedly undermines that angle by dialing up the hostility to a point where simply getting them all in a room together to perform is next to impossible. What “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” does is extremely rare. It fails to make music something to take pleasure in. Maybe that is intentional to an extent, a deliberate effort to subvert the tired cliché that simply picking up an instrument and blowing into it can mend all kinds of bridges. But maybe that’s not the best creative choice in a film about one of the great Black icons of the blues.

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