MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM clocks in at 1 hr and 34 minute run time, with a R rating. The film features star Chadwick Boseman, in one of his last roles, and mega star Viola Davis. Interestingly enough, Denzel Washington is named in the credits as a Producer. The title refers to a dance that was made famous by Charleston dancers in the 1920’s.
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award® winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) – who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry – spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives. Adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth.
The movie is currently featured on Netflix. Under normal circumstances we would be off to the theaters to see a movie with such a hallmark roster. One of the most haunting quotes in the film reminds viewers of a timeless struggle
Ma Rainey sitting in a studio, sweating and exasperated explains to her band leader; “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”
That is a recurring theme throughout this work, originally penned by August Wilson as a stage play. All the characters in the film portray nervous energy we all can be familiar with. There is the steady business head seen in the character of the band leader and the struggle of emotional trauma in Chadwick’s character.
The film is stark and realistic in dealing with consequences: How do those at the very lowest social rungs manage to both internalize and respond to their status? What does that say about them and the modes to which they are disempowered?
There are two paths in the film. On one end stands Rainey, fully conscious of the precarity presented by her body and mind. When we first see her on screen she is exiting an affluent Black-owned hotel. Her lover, Dussie Mae, and her teenage nephew Sylvester stand directly beside her; upon sensing the disturbance their presence has caused in the bourgeois watering hole, Rainey grabs hold of each of their arms in defiance. She makes a path for herself with no exceptions and no-one or noting will hold her back.
The character of horn hornblower Levee bends toward the same truth, but in a different direction. He sees that there is no promise of justice in this crooked world and is, instead, swallowed up by it.
Without given away too much of the story, I will tell you that it will move you to a feeling of resolution about what trauma of the world does to your spirit and how you cope with it.
It’s a hard R for some of the sexual content and the constant use of brash language. There is light substance abuse which is not blatant but tastefully intertwined with the movie. The performances are outstanding. Chadwick’s in particular will stick with you long after the credits roll. It’s worth watching for a movie evening. There is nothing bottom about it, in fact, the movie from start to finish is top shelf!
See Trailer Below: