Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has already gained mainstream recognition as the swan song of the late Chadwick Boseman. Indeed, his performance here is a tour de force and it’s a tragic reminder of what incredible talent was taken from us far too soon. (RIP) Though personally, I would more strongly associate the film with the late August Wilson, because this one’s got his fingerprints all over it.
The film concerns Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, here immortalized by Viola Davis (late of 2016’s Fences, another August Wilson adaptation). I might add that Ma Rainey is a real-life historical figure who helped to revolutionize blues and jazz during the Roaring ’20s. But to be clear, this isn’t a biopic per se — the plot is contained to a single day in 1927, for a recording session in a Chicago studio.
Ma is accompanied by her band of four musicians. The de facto bandleader is Cutler (Colman Domingo) on the trombone, a devout Christian with the unenviable task of keeping everything on an even keel. We’ve also got Toledo (Glynn Turman) on the keys, a voracious reader who’s lived a long and full life, though it’s not always easy to tell how full of shit he is. Then there’s Slow Drag (Michael Potts), a bass player with a love of tall tales.
And then we’ve got Levee Green. That would be Boseman’s character. Levee is a preternaturally gifted trumpet player with dreams of writing his own music to record with his own band. So of course he’s an egomaniacal showman getting crushed by the chip on his shoulder.
The title refers to Ma Rainey’s particular take on a blues standard. Trouble is, Levee wrote an updated arrangement that’s more upbeat and energetic. The band’s manager (Irvin, played by Jeremy Shamos) and the recording studio’s owner (Mel Sturdyvant, played by Jonny Coyne) both prefer Levee’s arrangement and they’re the ones paying for all of this. But Ma prefers her own original take, and she’s the one with the power to walk out the studio and shut this whole thing down.
Levee’s arrangement is supposedly more popular with the dance halls and radio stations of the north, while Ma’s more soulful and traditional rendition is what speaks to the Deep South. So both sides are able to make an argument that this is what the people want. However, both Levee and Ma repeatedly prove themselves to be pathological narcissists more concerned about themselves than their art or anything or anyone else.
Case in point: Ma repeatedly insists that her young nephew (Sylvester, played by Dusan Brown) be given a speaking cameo on the album, as the spoken-word lead-in to “Black Bottom”. Even though he has a debilitating stutter and he can barely string a sentence together. Ma lost a great deal of moral and artistic high ground with that bit of nepotism.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dussie Mae, played by a smoldering Taylour Paige. It’s understandable — in fact, I dare say it’s laudable — for the filmmakers to include a girlfriend for Ma Rainey, as there is documented (albeit circumstantial) evidence that the real-life Ma Rainey was gay, or at least bisexual. Even so, Dussie Mae is here presented as a disposable ornament for Ma Rainey and a possible sexual conquest for Levee. In other words, she’s here to help show exactly how full of shit these two characters are.
And yet, Ma Rainey gets a fantastic monologue at the halfway point to explain that her voice is the only real power she has. It’s the only reason she can make any money or find any success, so it’s the only reason why any white men ever bother to give her the time of day. In fact, it’s why Irvin and Sturdyvant — for all their grumblings about how Ma is impossible to work with and the recording session is costing them so much money — will always eventually cave and do as she asks. This is the only degree of power she has over the white man, and it’s more than most other black folk get, so while she may act like an insufferable diva, who’s to blame her for using that power?
(Side note: The very first black actor to ever become a millionaire was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known for his stage persona of “Stepin Fetchit”. Yes, this man became obscenely wealthy for performing in minstrel shows, directly proliferating racist images and stereotypes. Then again, if racist bigoted white people were going to sling racial epithets at him anyway, who could begrudge him getting paid for it?)
Moreover, Ma is deeply concerned — and perhaps with good reason — that the white people in charge will have no use for her once they’ve got her voice on a record. Why would anyone come to see her shows or pay for her performances when they could simply cue up the record player? Of course, the phonograph and mass-produced records were still a developing technology in 1927 — touring to promote the latest album while developing the next one wasn’t really an accepted concept back then like it is now. And how could Ma have possibly known that recording her voice for future generations would give her a kind of immortality? And if she had known, would she have cared?
Getting back to Levee, we learn in one or two other showstopping monologues that this character was indelibly shaped by childhood trauma at the hands of violent white bigots. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail, just because there’s so goddamn much to unpack here, and a lot of it is tied up in spoilers. Suffice to say that Levee doesn’t mind alienating everyone else or killing himself for his art because he’s already effectively dead inside.
Levee saw an act of unspeakable violence committed against his family, and he thought he had seen the worst of the world. He thinks he can handle the absolute worst that the white man — hell, the entire world — could throw at him. Needless to say, he doesn’t even know. Regardless of how many times the other characters warn him about the dangers of running his mouth, he simply won’t listen until it’s too late.
There’s a recurring subplot in which Levee struggles with a locked door in the band rehearsal room. I won’t spoil how it ends, but I think it speaks volumes that Levee puts so much time and effort in opening the door just to end up… well, there. It doesn’t make much sense in a narrative or literal way, but it’s a fantastic metaphor.
I’m sorry to say that the rest of the band doesn’t register quite as well, next to Ma or Levee, but they don’t really need to. They’re a group of professional musicians who get along and play well enough together, and that’s enough. Without them, we couldn’t really appreciate the raging pathological narcissism of Ma or Levee, or how harmful those two characters really are.
So are there any nitpicks? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that this is very much a play about a specific group of characters and the action is pretty much entirely contained to a few small rooms in a specific building. I might also add that the film was adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe — while both are accomplished multihyphenates, each with a long list of film and TV credits, they’re both best known for their work in writing and directing live theatre.
The bottom line is, this is a story that feels much more at home on the live stage than on recorded cinema. Even so, we do get a few scenes outside the recording studio, to help expand the scope a bit. It also helps that we’ve got Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman delivering larger-than-life performances that would blow the doors off any theater I’ve ever been to.
But the bigger problem is that… well, as with Fences, it’s hard to get around the fact that these are fundamentally broken characters. They have good reason to be broken, sure, but so much of this movie is spent watching angry assholes shouting at each other, and that’s not always the most pleasant experience. In fact, when they’re shouting at each other over shoes and air molecules and whatnot, it’s pointless as well as unpleasant.
Yet even when Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom spends its time on extraneous squabbling, it helps to develop the characters so the monologues and plot turns hit that much harder. This is a solid character drama, with well-defined characters and palpable conflict brought to life with stellar performances. In fact, while the plot itself is small potatoes with mundane stakes, it’s elevated by sterling delivery and a geyser of racial trauma.
It’s not always a pleasant film to sit through, but there can be no doubt that it’s superbly made. If you’ve seen Fences, you’ll have a good idea what to expect here (but with much better music). If you haven’t, give the film a watch and see how you like it.