In a move that will likely surprise no one, we managed to out-Christmas ourselves with some features we found less than heartwarming despite our best efforts. Since Christmas is over but we still feel the Blog Collab deserves a gift, this week’s pic is the less seasonally appropriate but no less magical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based on the August Wilson play, the film notably depicts Chadwick Boseman in his final role onscreen, surely a gift to us all.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Throughout the course of a day recording an album, tensions surface between blues legend Ma Rainey and the ambitious trumpeter in her band.
After rising to the legendary status of Mother of the Blues in 1920s Georgia, Ma Rainey commands attention and respect, suffering no fools during the recording of her album in Chicago (for which she rolls in late with her lady lover and nephew). Even so, Ma Rainey is constantly pushing back against her white man manager and producer.
Most of the members of Ma Rainey’s band are older gentlemen content to play music together, get the recording done as quickly as possible, and yield to Ma’s demands. Unhappy with this arrangement is young horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who dreams of starting out his own band. Levee is a dapper man, opting for stylish clothes and a new pair of bright yellow shoes for the day. Are the expensive new shoes key to the plot? More than you know.
As the band waits for Ma’s arrival, it becomes clear that they each have trauma and differences of opinion beneath their gentle teasing. Winner of most likely to wag a finger at a young Black man with baggy pants or lecture about respectability is Toledo, who frowns with disapproval about young people only interested in having a good time.
This doesn’t fly with Levee, who goes so far as to defy God to strike him down. He questions where God could possibly be in the world they live in, especially in light of a horrific trauma that occurred during his childhood. As a result, Levee always keeps a knife on him–another important detail.
Something of a diva, Ma Rainey’s eventual arrival creates more drama when she insists her nephew record the song intro that was Levee’s, and use a different arrangement than expected. A further complication? Ma Rainey’s nephew has a stutter, requiring many takes of his part. Creating a further rift between Ma and Levee is the latter’s interest in Dussie Mae, Ma’s current lover.
Sensing the end of his role as a member of Ma’s band, Levee confronts recording studio owner Sturdyvant about producing Levee’s record as promised on a prior occasion. However, Sturdyvant is no longer interested, willing only to buy Levee’s songs for $5 each and have another artist do the recording.
With tension at its peak, how will the members of the band respond to the pressure?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
What you will hear relentlessly about this film (if you haven’t already) is that the performances are astonishing–and there’s no doubt about that. Viola Davis is impeccable, though this is very much Chadwick Boseman’s film. While he portrays a character full of disappointment, pain, and rage, all of these emotions simmer underneath the surface with a brilliant subtlety. This yields an ending to the story that feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.
As for the film’s plot itself, it’s stretched a bit thin. Because this is an adaptation of an August Wilson play, there are a lot of monologues. And you’re either into that or you’re not. Personally, most of these merely served to remind me that we were in many ways watching the recording of a play. There’s quite a lot of talking and not a lot of action; for me, the balance was a bit off.
Additionally, we don’t get as much Ma Rainey as I anticipated. Despite being the titular character of the film, the male characters receive much more of the focus. I won’t complain too much about this, especially since one of these characters is portrayed by Boseman, but I could have happily enjoyed much more of Ma Rainey’s self-assured swagger.
However, the message feels just as relevant today as during the play’s run in the 1980s or even Ma Rainey’s time around 100 years ago. The anger, resignation, and deep sadness our Black characters feel in their everyday lives and within the music industry endures as much as the songs of a blues legend.