Big Easy Movie Reviews: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

“What you all say don’t count with me, you understand? Ma listen to her heart. Ma listen to the voice inside her. That’s what count with Ma.”

It’s a dark night in the woods. The dogs are howling loudly. Two young black men are running, running as fast as they can, through the branches, over the roots, through standing water. They could be running from slave catchers; they could be running for their very lives. Instead, they’re rushing to get to Ma Rainey’s performance in a big tent in Barnesville, Georgia. 

The year is 1927. It will be eight years before the real Ma Rainey will retire from music to run her own theaters. After the tent scene, we meet Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Levee (Chadwick Boseman, THE Black Panther), in his final performance. Along with them, are their two white producers, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s manager, and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the studio manager, who have one major question on their minds: Where’s Ma? Which is an excellent question. But in the meantime, we’ll have to await her arrival at the studio, as these men talk about religion, philosophy, and tell each other stories about their own lives.

It is in these discussions, that we really begin to appreciate two of the primary scene-stealers: Cutler, the sexy-voiced Colman Domingo who also plays Victor Strand on Fear the Walking Dead, and Levee, an angry, temperamental young man who talks of the future, but can’t seem to keep his head in the present. Domingo, as always, has a presence about him that’s easy to see, but hard to explain. He’s not a huge guy, but he can always fill the whole screen. 

Boseman’s Levee, is many things at once: impatient, ambitious, and most of all dangerous, to both himself and those around him. From scene to scene, he has different kinds of outbursts–bashing in doors that lead to nowhere, knife fights over the meaning of God. Boseman plays the character to perfection, bringing an energy to it that radiates like heat from his skin.

Then there’s Ma Rainey herself, played masterfully by Viola Davis. As Ma Rainey, she is vibrant and raw. Ma is rude, mean, and more than that, she’s powerful. No matter what happens, or what’s going on around her, Ma Rainey makes sure stuff gets done, and that it gets done her way. If there’s anyone who can compete with Boseman or Domingo, it’s definitely Viola Davis, who is truly convincing in this role. 

There are several themes in the movie. What price anger, ambition, impatience? Levee and Toledo pay a huge price. Another is respect—the respect that is not given to black men and women but must be fought for. How awful it is when black people turn on one another rather than on their white oppressors when things go bad. Racial themes weigh heavily throughout the film, as they have to keep it real in this time, whether the 20s or now, and in this place, America.   

“What do I care about bad luck. I eat it every day for breakfast.”

Loosely based on the real Ma Rainey, influential blues singer, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, who is also the playwright who created Fences. It’s also the only play of his that’s focused around an LGBT character. Ma Rainey is represented as having a female companion, as she was rumored to in real life.

There’s a lot to like about this movie. The play has been performed widely since 1982, so you know the dialogue is what’s going to make or break this film. The dialogue definitely soars. There’s also the acting, which if I haven’t made clear enough already, is fantastic. The casting of these powerhouse performers is pure genius. 

The only problematic aspect is that the film is based on a play, and it very clearly knows it. From the lack of scenery to the relatively static shooting style, there’s just not a lot of variety in the look of the movie. The shooting is bland. The cinematography is bland and unvaried to the point of boredom. 

But don’t let that detract from what is over all, a very good film. While it has its flaws, it definitely overcomes them with the force of its strengths. If you’re looking for a good film on Netflix, I recommend Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. 

Rating: 4/5


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