Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

A recording session of Ma Rainey’s – the Mother of the Blues – greatest hits quickly becomes heated in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as philosophies and worldviews clash, while Ma Rainey commands everyone around her with her larger-than-life persona. Viola Davis relishes this role, embodying the confidence of a diva that won’t stand for compromises. As fantastic as she is here, though, this is Chadwick Boseman’s film.

In his final performance, Boseman plays Levee, an ambitious trumpet player, who goes toe-to-toe with Ma Rainey after she refuses to sing his arrangement of her most popular song. Levee – who doesn’t like to settle either – sees his entire life as a compromise that doesn’t fit his ambitions. Unlike Ma, he has no power to command. He is a trapped man, who’s constantly fighting his peers in a futile attempt to escape his condition. There is a sense of hopelessness to Boseman’s performance that gains an ever more tragic dimension in the context of his death: Levee sees himself as an artist that has so much to offer to a world that will never get to see the fulfilment of his potential. He knows his fate, but doesn’t want to accept it, fighting until the very last moment.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an uncompromisingly powerful film. It punches with every single syllable of its monologues and speaks of the importance of art and the often tragic position that artists find themselves in, becoming a fitting tribute to Chadwick Boseman who gives the performance of a lifetime.

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