Saturday, December 26, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Directed by George C. Wolfe.
2020. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jonathan Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown.

    We meet Ma Rainey (Davis) fully-formed as the Mother of the Blues. Her and her band descend upon 1920s Chicago from the deepest bowels of the American South for a recording session. She has already proven to be a major record seller and demands things her way. The band gets there long before she does so we get to know them as well as we do Ma. Cutler (Domingo) is the leader of the bunch, and Ma's right hand man. His good friends Toledo (Turman) and Slow Drag (Potts) make up the group's core. The three of them have been together for quite some time and have forged clear bonds. Levee (Boseman) is the youngest, newest, and most mercurial member of the band. Decades younger than his bandmates, he has big plans and an ego to match. When Ma finally arrives, she drags her nephew Sylvester (Brown) and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Paige) with her. Add in two white guys, studio owner Sturdyvant (Coyne) and her manager Irvin (Shamos), and we have a volatile mix that can't help but agitate itself.

    The roster of personalities complement and contrast one another in near perfect ways. Despite barely crossing the ninety minute barrier and being hyperfocused on a singular event, the recording of three songs, the film does a marvelous job letting most of these characters morph into three-dimensional beings. Interestingly, the titular Ma Rainey is the last of these to develop. Not only does she arrive late to her own movie (after that brief glimpse of her during the opening), but what's working beneath the surface isn't readily apparent. It's quite some time before she opens up. On the other hand, the boys in the band are open books. Conversations between them happen easily and flow smoothly from one topic to the next. Each subject reveals a bit more about the men and their motivations. For the older guys, this leads them to being in this very spot, at this very moment, to simply perform the job they were hired to do. For relative youngster Levee, it means divulging big plans and unleashing fierce defiance. It's a trait he shares with Ma, making the bumping of heads inevitable. 

    What happens between all of these people is less satisfying and important than what these events represent. They're a  microcosm of the combination of capitalism, and racial and gender politics known as America. What's being examined is the effects of those things on the people not in their good graces. What plays out is a crystallization of things that were happening during the time the film is set, were still happening when the source material was written in the 1980s, and still happening today. It's a disheartening portrait of this country's lack of progress in too many areas. The fact it paints this picture is what makes it acceptable that the two white characters are easily the flattest. Rather than being full-fledged people, they are avatars for the white power structure of the nation at large, and the entertainment industry through a more concentrated lens. They are also the reasons the surface story might not jive with some viewers. Where it leaves them might make you say, "That's it?" If you think no more about it, that statement might also sum up your feelings on the film as a whole. Fortunately, it doesn't take too much effort to move beyond that sentiment.

    The cast that pulls this all together is uniformly great. Due to his untimely passing, Chadwick Boseman automatically grabbed the spotlight. His performance is worthy of the praise. His charisma is off the charts, reminiscent of his criminally underrated and luminescent turn in the James Brown biopic Get On Up. The problem is that movie is not very good. This one is far better, making the accolades easier to attain. Speaking of underrated, Boseman's castmate Glynn Turman, as Toledo, is at least his equal, if not his superior. While Boseman is setting the screen on fire Turman repeatedly douses his corner and steals glances. Often, he does it with just a facial expression. His lengthy filmography is woefully short on characters of substance. He delivers whenever he gets one and this is some of his best work. In the role of Slow Drag, Michael Potts also has some wonderful moments, injecting even more emotion into the proceedings. Colman Domingo's Cutler is the most even-keel character, which might lead to him being overlooked. However, Cutler's deeply measured words and looks of consternation are clearly the work of the master craftsman subtly plying his trade. Oddly, the weakest moments fall at the feet of the great Viola Davis. Her work during scenes of dialogue is stellar, as always. She gives us all we need to know about Ma. The problem comes when Ma is singing. The film uses the real Ma Rainey's tracks for these times. Sadly, Davis is just bad at lip synching. It's distracting enough to take you out of the movie. I have no idea if Davis can carry a note or not. If she can, it would've been a much wiser choice to have her do her own singing.  

    Yes, Ma Rainey is indeed a real person, but this is no biopic. This is historic fiction based on the August Wilson play of the same name. Wilson's work also inspired 2016's Fences. Like many other stage to screen adaptations, there are times when it feels trapped in a location rather than merely existing here. The film manages to keep this to a minimum, but occasionally stringing together monologues serves as a reminder of its roots. They feel a bit less warranted here than in Fences. However, they serve as our main form of character development. As implied, the cast does an amazing job of delivering them, so we don't mind. Despite the fact that they're in the same building, Ma spends much of the runtime isolated from the others with Cutler and Irvin serving as go betweens for the various factions. This also helps assuage the feeling that someone just stuck a camera in front of the stage. Director George C. Wolfe, who has some experience in this area, having previously directed Lackawanna Blues, another play about the blues transformed into a movie. That one is underrated and underseen. It's a good time. With a talented cast at the top of their game, and the deeply layered writing of August Wilson as a base Ma Rainey's Black Bottom surpasses it, and most other films about the blues, in every way. 

R.I.P. Chadwick Boseman

1976 - 2020


  1. I have this film on my laptop hard drive waiting to be watched in full. There's a bunch of new films to watch as I hope to get to it before the end of the year or in the new year.

  2. I'm hoping to get this in before the end of the year. I have a feeling it's going to end up on next year's Oscar list.

    1. There seems to be a pretty good chance of it.

  3. I wish Chadwick was here to see all the praise he's getting for this film. He was wonderful, as was the whole cast. I enjoyed this overall but I really didn't like the ending, it just added more pain. It's not a bad ending, and I'm sure in other circumstances I'd feel differently, but I was bummed.

    1. It's definitely not a feel-good ending, so I totally understand where you're coming from.

  4. I didn't know what to expect from this one but I had such a blast watching it. Chadwick deserves every bit of praise he's receiving and it's heartbreaking. I could have sat watching Levee and his bandmates just conversing for hours, they were all such interesting characters.