Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Review: A fiery, furious, and heartbreakingly emotional modern masterpiece
Garnering a ton of acclaim leading up to its release for the performances from Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, Netflix’s latest big December release, director George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is the best one yet. Based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, the film follows the legendary “Mother of Blues” as tensions flare at a Chicago recording session between her, white management, and an ambitious trumpeter named Levee (Boseman) as a battle of wills over controlling her music ensues.
Wolfe’s experience in directing is mostly with Broadway plays, although he also has plenty of films under his belt, and it ends up being a major benefit to this adaptation with how it still feels like a play. With how Wolfe shows the film’s central music studio location, handles line delivery, and captures a lot of the big monologues and exchanges, it’s easy to see this story take place on a stage and it makes the viewing experience of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom truly unique. Wolfe’s direction really brings you in the film and makes you feel like you’re there while also making you feel the film’s 1920’s time period. Through the excellent cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler matched with the great costume design from Ann Roth and bluesy score from Branford Marsalis, the film really transports viewers back to its time and delivers an incredibly strong narrative.
Throughout the film, there’s this ongoing battle and discussion between everyone about pride, creative control, and artistic integrity that’s incredibly compelling with how it ties to racial injustice within the music industry. Just through a quick montage of newspaper clippings about many African Americans moving North for better opportunities and a quick showing of how Ma commands the stage, Wolfe instantly establishes how pivotal her sense of creative integrity is and why she’s absolutely fearless in getting what she wants. At face value, Ma’s behavior of demanding that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) do the intro to the film’s titular song regardless what the producers say or not performing until she has a Coca-Cola in her hand would be labeled as her being a “diva,” but there’s really a deeper meaning to it. The film really showcases the deep sense of frustrations that Ma has in the state of how white people treat African American artists – only wanting them for their talent and still making them unequal to them.
Davis brings this out perfectly in a truly transformative performance full of fiery passion and incredible singing. With her not only physically transforming into the legendary artist in both her look and sound, but also exuding the furious passion and determination to not let those around her run her life, Davis solidifies herself another strong Oscar run and exudes the deep-seeded frustration Ma has with things. I mean, just think about it, the opening establishes how African Americans were promised better opportunities, but it quickly becomes clear that that promise didn’t exclude the racism that they still face. Ma realizes this too and it’s what makes her constant tirades and demands actually incredibly empowering. Her realization that they need her more than she needs them is the true fuel to her fiery personality and her refusal to bow down to other people that want to change her music and control her creativity is something that makes her legacy come to life and be a truly impactful figure. It acts as the sort of triumphant and determined part of the film’s integral look at the African American injustice within the music industry compared to Levee’s story that’s not so sweet.
With his youthful ambition that makes him think that he can strike out on his own and outwit the white producers that the rest of his bandmates think will be his undoing, Levee’s story is sort of the opposite to Ma’s – one with no legacy, but a similarly fiery drive. Throughout him trying to convince the others that he won’t fail and that he’ll be taken just as seriously as Ma, there’s a lot of great stories told that genuinely touch your heart and instantly spark deep thought. From Levee talking about his father’s fight against a group of white men and what it taught him to Cutler (Colman Domingo), the sort of leader of the band, talking about a story he heard about a preacher that ended up in the wrong town, there’s this palpable feeling of being beaten down that opens up a lot of intriguing discussion between the band. There’s this sort of youth versus experience battle that can be felt with Levee having to defend his views to the doubtful older men around him, a deep reflection to the wrongful treatment and racism these men have incurred in their lives, and how all this has shaped them into who they are today. It’s easily what makes this film a constantly compelling, character-driven narrative that’s hard to turn away from – especially when the performances are so good.
Honestly, Boseman has been one of the most underrated talents of this generation and has had such an incredible career that a performance like this reminds you why it’s so tragic that he’s gone. In his final performance, Boseman leaves nothing unfinished as he delivers powerfully raw emotion in every scene he’s in and has some of the best line-delivery he’s had of his career. His monologues about his father, how he’s lost faith in God, and how he’s not going to let anyone walk all over him again carry this deep personal burden that makes you connect with Levee on a deeply personal level. For every feeling of anguish and despair, he also brings something lively and ambitious that makes his performance so complex and truly is a full showing of his talents. All of this comes together to deliver one of the most tragic and heartbreaking endings I’ve seen lately and perfectly encapsulates the horrifying and wrongful way that white culture has taken and erased African American impact in music and wrongfully made it their own. It’s legitimately one of the most mind-blowing and emotionally impactful visual this year has to offer and genuinely sticks with you in a haunting way.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is no doubt a modern masterpiece that expertly delivers a story about injustice and artistic integrity that’s full of anguish and heartbreaking emotion. It’s a transformative experience that’s excellently made with Wolfe’s direction, Davis’ powerful lead performance full of fiery and furious determination, and Boseman’s career-defining performance that sadly reminds us that he’s gone too soon.