Based on a play by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is quite a simple concept on the surface. Set in 1920’s Chicago, we follow Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”) and her band during a single recording session.
But with any great piece of art, there are layers. These layers tell a generational tale of the Black experience in the United States. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is less a biopic or a snapshot of Black music, than it is a movie about trauma; Black trauma. Much like “A Raisin in the Sun” we are forced into a dingy claustrophobic environment and made to witness multiple generations of black people struggle to make sense of things, as the world around them continues to take and take.
With themes regarding a Black man’s place in society, the exploitation of Black people in general and how a black woman with power must conduct herself in order to survive, Wilson’s story (specifically the dialogue) is a symphony in and of itself. Sure, this was adapted to the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, but how could I not give all credit to Wilson, who is still the beating heart of this piece?
Most definitely the performances by Viola Davis (Widows) who plays the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) who plays a young trumpet player with big dreams and a whole lot of unresolved anger, are spectacular. They should not and will not be an afterthought in any credible critique.
Davis orders white men around, takes up space and contorts her body to play this imposing co-lead, having full control of the room as a black woman in the 1920’s. And Chadwick (RIP) gives an award worthy performance which rivals Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun”. It’s impossible for me to find a more accurate description of this, his final performance.
The direction from George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues) while not an afterthought, is the least spectacular aspect of this film. But it really doesn’t need to be anything more than a stage to showcase the talent on screen.
Final Thought: While I praise the more recent display of “Black love” in Hollywood (showing Black affection and sex on screen) I do admire the display of Black rage showcased here. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives us something we only really get to see (en masse) in Spike Lee films. It validates and humanizes Black rage.
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