Reel Reviews | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Another one of August Wilson’s comes to life anchored by the last performance of Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Chicago 1927.  Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is invited into the studio to record some songs for an album.  What transpires are a number of power plays between Ma and the producers, Ma and the brash young trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), and even Levee and the rest of the band.  Will the recording be made and all the parties stay together?

With a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lackawanna Blues) based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Davis and Boseman with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts.  The movie is George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Lackawanna Blues).  The movie is also produced by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington who was nominated for another Academy Award in 2017 for his role in August Wilson’s Fences.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second play of August Wilson’s famous Century Cycle, a group of ten plays that take place in ten different decades.  Black Bottom has the distinction of being the only play of the cycle that does not have a setting in Pittsburgh, it is set in Chicago.  This play also won a New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award.  Wilson wrote the Century Cycle plays with the intention of giving white audiences a look at the African American life that they would not have seen any other way.

While many may look at Ma Rainey’s as just a story about a recording session, there are definitely deeper and currently relevant themes that are communicated through the screenplay including how and why the Black community inflicts pain upon itself and how the younger generation sees the generations that came before them.  Levee, masterfully embodied by Boseman, is brash and reckless.  He seems to have it all together but is truly lost and insecure.  He wants the recognition and attention that the veteran Rainey has but refuses to work with her.

The acting performances in the film are beyond excellent.  The exquisite Viola Davis allows herself to be so ugly that it is jarring but at the same time has a genuine sensibility about who she is and her purpose that it cuts a swath through everyone in the film from the moment she appears until she is gone.  Unlike in Fences, Wilson’s next play in order but last movie, there is no moment of direct confrontation between Davis’ Rainey and Boseman’s Levee but instead a series of moves and countermoves through the other “pieces” on the board, being the band and Mr. Irvin, the white record producer.

This being his last performance, there will be and has been much talk about a posthumous award for Chadwick Boseman.  In short, he deserves it.  The role he plays as Levee is definitely designed as the juiciest role of the play and his work in the role is stellar, especially with the specter of the facts about his failing health at the time of his performance.  But even without knowing, Boseman is a wonder to behold as he journeys through a wide range of emotions and drives the narratives of the play.  Watching him is amazing and makes the loss of him and his talent even harder to accept.

Historically, transferring plays to the big screen has been a challenge.  There have been many failures in recent memory including Les Miserables, Rent, and Cats all of which were popular as theater but just did not communicate well as a movie.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not the exception to the rule.  Despite fantastic acting and decent direction, Black Bottom ends with a thud and any message it tried to convey through its run gets lost in its conclusion. 

Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an intelligent social commentary about the plight of the Black community that somewhere along its way loses its voice.  It is most entertaining until the end when Ma Rainey’s bottom drops out.

Grade:  B-

Check out Tim Gordon’s Reel Review, below: