Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)
December 20, 2020 6:57 AM - Subscribe

Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues". Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play.


Odie Henderson: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a celebration of three real-life Black artists and legends. There’s the blues singer, often referred to as the “Mother of the Blues,” whose name and song give the film its title. There’s the author, August Wilson who, inspired by Rainey and the era she found fame in, crafted his 1984 play around her larger-than-life persona. And there’s Chadwick Boseman, taken from us way too soon, who chose this difficult material to play while living with cancer. We’ll never know if Boseman knew this would be his swan song; the fact that it is haunts the viewer, especially during one particular monologue. Boseman never gave less than one hundred percent to his often demanding roles. His work here as the trumpet player, Levee, is no exception. It’s no stretch to say his last performance may be his finest.

Aisha Harris: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe's dynamic film adaptation of August Wilson's award-winning 1982 play, now streaming on Netflix, cares about much more than just Ma's big, brassy voice. A fictional account of a day in the life of the early 20th century blues singer Rainey, who was known for her bawdy lyricism and bold personality, this is a reclamation of Black music and culture as told through an array of distinct characters, crackling dialogue and sharp filmmaking.

Alissa Wilkinson: Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe retained Wilson’s incredible dialogue but opened up the play’s setting just a tad, so that it works on screen. A few added moments flesh out the story. The play, for instance, starts in the recording studio, where Ma’s white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the white producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) argue about how to handle Ma and the band during the recording session. But the movie starts at a concert, with Ma enthralling the masses but shooting daggers at Levee, who’s slipped on stage to literally steal the spotlight with a trumpet solo. She fought for that spotlight, and he’s not going to take it from her.

Josh Larson: Much like Fences, which Viola Davis starred in (opposite director Denzel Washington), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom always feels like an adaptation of an August Wilson play. But when the material is this good, that hardly matters. Thanks to its excellent ensemble cast and the musical element (Davis sings on “Those Dogs of Mine,” otherwise the vocals for Ma’s blistering blues numbers are provided by Maxayn Lewis), Ma Rainey leaps from the screen in the same way I imagine it leaps from the stage: as a testament to the complicated humanity that lies behind all artistic expression—even songs about “a dance you call the black bottom.”
posted by octothorpe (5 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I never saw the play, so I don't know how it compares, but I thought the movie was excellent. Viola Davis is completely unrecognizable. Honestly, if I hadn't known that was her playing Ma before I watched it, I would never have guessed. Astounding, flawless performance. The entire cast is A+. Knowing Chadwick Boseman was ill and dying during the filming just makes his portrayal all the more bitterwseet and poignant. His performance is fierce and tragic and one he will be long remembered for.
posted by pjsky at 11:12 AM on December 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I loved it, mostly for the fact that the director let it be theatrical. It's almost all in two locations and the performances are big and somewhat stylized. It felt very alive and not like you were watching a very reverent Masterpiece Theater production. Even if cancer hadn't struck down Boseman, he'd be a sure Oscar nominee and now, I can't see anyone else winning.

I got a personal extra thrill because the exteriors were filmed a block from my house so it was fun to see W. North Avenue in Pittsburgh transformed into 1927 Chicago.
posted by octothorpe at 11:57 AM on December 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have read several interviews with Colman Domingo about this piece; in several of them, he mentions that after that big scene with Levee cursing God, during the take they used, when they stopped filming and said "Cut" Chadwick Boseman collapsed into Colman's arms and started sobbing, and they both just hung onto each other crying it out. At the time he'd chalked it up to Chadwick just really being in the zone or something, and it wasn't until after Chadwick had passed that everyone realized "oh dang, that's what was going on with him during that take, wasn't it."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:45 PM on December 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Oh wow i didn't know this movie exists. Thank you so much! I'll catch this right this evening.
posted by cendawanita at 6:56 PM on December 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

That scene Empress describes was simply unbelievable. This whole production was absolutely fantastic. I've been thinking about it ever since I watched it days ago. Domingo was perfection. Boseman- words cannot express. Amazing, electrifying. I did not know the play or the outcome and WOW, that took all my breath away. Cannot recommend this highly enough.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:44 AM on January 3, 2021

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