“Now death. Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing” -Levee (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted from the August Wilson play, is a tribute to blues music and blues legend Ma Rainey. With raw and unapologetic performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, stories about the hardships of Black musicians are weaved in with blues while Ma Rainey and her band record at a white-owned Chicago recording studio. Viola Davis brings real-life blues legend, Ma Rainey, to life with impeccable lip-sync performances that display the true emotion behind blues. As band member Levee, Chadwick Boseman shows frustration with not having the spotlight on his music and struggles with his ambition as a trumpet player. With Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles as the rest of Ma Rainey’s band, the ensemble of musicians throughout the film was strong and incredibly engaging to watch. Each actor playing Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag respectively had great depth and extreme patience with Ma’s antics. The overall recognition of the time period through design elements and the contained setting of this film makes this story simultaneously theatrical and raw.
Viola Davis has been praised for pretty much every performance she has ever done, but something about her portrayal of Ma Rainey is special. Davis undergoes a transformation to become this iconic musician with caked-on makeup, bejeweled floor-length gowns, and flashy accessories to fully embody Ma’s gaudy stage persona. When Ma Rainey first arrives at the recording studio and there is an issue in the street with her car and the police, the absolute force of Davis’s performance, as well as Ma Rainey’s unapologetic and unwavering nature, hit hard with references to today’s ongoing police brutality issues. Ma Rainey knows she is a star and doesn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. However, she recognizes how her voice and her “star-power” differ from others because of the color of her skin. In the film, Ma Rainey states “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they going to treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them.” Davis takes the “angry black woman” trope and turns it on its head by teaching the white people around her how she deserves to be treated. Viola Davis continues to impress us with her recalcitrant and sturdy portrayal of Ma Rainey throughout several captivating Blues performances.
Chadwick Boseman’s final film solidifies the mark he left on our world. Very different than his legendary performance as Black Panther, Boseman creates light and dark and every color in between with his portrayal of Levee, Ma Rainey’s trumpet player. In a monologue describing an attack on his mother when he was a kid, Levee expresses his disbelief in God. Boseman did not hold back for a second in his performance, it felt as though he left all he had in this film. Watching this knowing it would be Boseman’s last appearance on screen made these scenes completely heartbreaking to watch. Boseman struggled with cancer for three years before this film without his co-stars knowing. Co-Star Coleman Domingo recalls in an interview that as Boseman prepared to pour his entire heart out onto the screen he stated “I can’t wait to dance with you, Coleman.” Chadwick Boseman’s spirit lives on through his work and this performance specifically will be remembered through Levee’s ambition yet tragic tempestuousness.
The music, the overall time period design, and the story that brings the blues of the 1920s to life deserve all the praise they have already received. For me, music is the most important element of this work in the end. Ma Rainey proved that music can be a true form of self-expression as well as a means of entertainment. The Blues are a way of confronting the unpleasant and unkind nature of the world. Ma Rainey states “The more music you have in the world, the fuller it is.” Which I believe to be completely true. It feels like a true privilege to see Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in these roles together and learn from the Mother of Blues herself the importance of music in this time period.
Incluvie Score: 4
Movie Score: 5