Director: George C Wolfe
Screenwriters: August Wilson, Reuben Santiago – Hudson
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Coleman Domingo, Glynn Truman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Johnny Coyne, Taylor Paige, Dusan Brown
George C Wolfe’s film has been adapted cinematically by August Wilson’s play which first met the stage in 1984. The whole film follows a single recording session in Chicago, Illionis in the late 1920s. It expresses the real life personalities of “The Mother of Blues”, Ma Rainey, played by Academy Award winner, Viola Davis and her back up band. The beginning of the film quickly showcases the large ambition and need for attention of the band’s trumpet player, Levee, played by the late great Chadwick Boseman. Viewers might quickly notice Boseman’s thinner frame than compared to what Marvel movie watchers are used to seeing. Although Viola Davis was asked to put on a considerable amount of weight to best represent Ma Rainey, this was not the case for Boseman. Little to his fellow cast and crewmate’s knowledge, Boseman was secretly fighting a battle against colon cancer. Watching this film while already knowing the actor’s eventual unfair fate allows the viewers to appreciate his incredibly powerful and emotional performance that much more.
As the band awaits Ma’s arrival at the recording studio, we begin to learn about each of their characters and the different perspectives they hold compared to Levee’s. While the rest of the band shows that they are there to play Ma’s music and get out, Levee is vocal on how he is there to show music producer, Sturdyvant, played by Jonny Coyne, his own music arrangements and to eventually create his own band. His bandmates treat his gimmicks and attitude as foolish. As they begin to rehearse “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, Levee informs the band that Ma’s manager, Irvin, played by Jeremy Shamos, ordered the band to play Levee’s arrangement of the song. After Irvin comes in and confirms that Levee’s arrangement is what they are going to record, Cutler, played by Colman Domingo, continues to disregard it and assures Levee that it doesn’t matter what Irvin has to say, only what Ma says goes. As the film begins to introduce Ma Rainey, the viewers quickly understand why Cutler is certain of this.
As Ma is arriving at the recording studio and is hit by another car, the way she starts going back and forth with the police officer shows how apparent her dominant and demand for respect demeanor is. Those Ma keeps around her act towards her in a way showing that they know only her way goes. Sturdyvant appears at Ma’s hands and feet because he knows that is the only way he will get her to record music and get what he needs out of her. Ma knows this as well. She explains that she acts the way she does because she is a black women and knows that these white men only give her the time of day because they need her voice and the money her records bring. Irvin fails to bring her a can of coke before she starts recording, so Ma refuses to begin until she has her coke-cola. This act could easily be viewed as Ma being a diva, but Ma knows her worth and knows how white men view her worth. Davis carries Ma’s commanding nature through the whole film with so much power.
While Ma will not take any orders from a white man, Levee has had to learn to take the opposite approach. As his bandmates begin to mock him over his attempts to impress Irvin and Sturdyant, Levee lets them know just why and how he knows how to deal with a white man. He movingly delivers a monologue explaining a horrific story of when he was younger and a group of white men raped his mother, slashed Levee with a knife across his chest leaving him permanently scarred and later killing his father. His bandmates begin to understand why he will listen and do what a white man says as long as it results in Levee’s favor. Levee doesn’t allow any of his bandmates talk down his behavior. Ma’s current object of affection, Dussie Mae, played by Taylour Paige, accompanies her to this session. Dussie Mae seems to have also caught Levee’s eye. His bandmates urge him to leave her alone knowing Ma will not have that, but Levee of course does not listen. The band continues to share their concern for Levee as he is acting like a fool and going to reap the consequences for it. Cutler attempts to share a story of a reverend who was beaten by white men, but is cut off by Levee questioning if the man was a man of God, why didn’t God help him. He shares that he doesn’t think God listens to black people’s prayers which quickly brings a large reaction from Culter. As the situation becomes much more heated, Levee begins to yell at his bandmates and God asking where he was when his mom pleaded to Him for help. He yells at the sky asking God why he turned His back on her and threatening God to turn His back on him. This specific scene is much more heart wrenching to watch as I can’t help, but wonder if Boseman was experiencing any similar feelings as he was aware that his time on earth was going to be shortened. Boseman has delivered amazing performances in his past films, but this final performance was noticeably delivered with much more heart and soul. Levee’s explosive behavior gets the best of him and after the pianist of the group steps on his new pair of shoes, he strikes him with a knife, killing him. The film closes with an all-white band performing Levee’s songs that he created for his own band that he hoped to one day make, but never was able to.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” can be streamed on Netflix. This film has already found a great amount of well-deserved attention. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman have been honored by the Golden Globes being nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor in a drama. The Screen Actors Guild Awards has also nominated Chadwick Boseman for Best Male Lead and Viola Davis for Best Female Lead as well has the whole cast been nominated for Best Ensemble. I, as I’m sure the rest of the world wishes Boseman could be here to witness all this recognition and bask in this glory.