Like creating great music, it’s important that every member of a film’s cast is on the same page.
Thankfully, in the case of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the cast are not only in sync with one another. They’re in perfect harmony.
Set in 1920s Chicago, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of an afternoon as legendary ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band gather to record one of her latest hits. As temperatures rise, so too do tensions as Ma attempts to wrestle control of her music away from her white manager and producer. Within the band itself, conversations revolve around the ambitious and impetuous Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a trumpeter with dreams recording his unique style of music with the hopes of claiming fame for himself. However, as Levee’s visions of success cause disruptions amongst his bandmates, he also finds himself reliving some of the traumas that have so far defined his young life.
Based on the play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a brilliantly and passionate performed film that begins with a song but ends with a power struggle. Directed by Tony award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe (Angels in America: Millenium Approaching), the film’s limited sets and dialogue-heavy scenes help it maintain the intimacy and energy of a Broadway play. Though not all dramatic adaptations adapt well onscreen, Wolfe brings the film to life by rightly letting its characters and their interactions remain the focus of the story.
Though the entire cast does a remarkable job within the film, Ma Rainey’s quickly becomes an acting masterclass from two truly talented artists in Davis and Boseman. In one of her finest performances in recent years, Davis thunders around the room as the no-nonsense Rainey, taking no prisoners yet also demonstrating a subtle nervousness underneath her hardened exterior.
Not to be outdone, Boseman’s work here is simply stunning as the confident and cocky Levee. Whether he’s showing off his new shoes or railing against his bandmates on issues of race or faith, Boseman emotionally invests himself into every moment of his performance with enthusiasm and vigor. As his final performance, his work here is truly an incredible send-off that showcases the immense talent that was lost with his passing.
Though the film is set in 1927, Ma Rainey’s couldn’t feel more relevant. At a time when racial injustice is a daily topic of conversation, this visceral tale about the imbalances of power feels both honest and necessary. In this film, money and race are in constant competition with one another for the seat of dominance. For instance, as their ‘most important artist’, Rainey runs the show, keeping her agent hopping with various needs in order to ensure that she and her band are happy. However, when she’s not around, the studio’s white producer maintains control, haggling over wages and dictating how the band will play their music. This tension is illustrated beautifully through the film’s sets as characters jockey for physical positions of power on staircases and various levels. (Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that the band members are only brought upstairs from the basement when Rainey arrives.)
However, there’s much more at stake here than ice cold coke bottles or dollar signs. This back-and-forth racial conflict points to a battle for the soul of a culture, primarily through its music. As Rainey insists on performing her way, her producer pleads with her to increase the tempo in order to reach a wider (read: whiter) audience. Building like a crescendo, small arguments about musical style and texture build furiously towards larger discussions about ownership that reveal the true issues of power at stake. (In fact, even Rainey knows that her hold over her white producers is tenuous, claiming that they’re only willing to help her because of the financial potential of her voice as opposed to genuine care.)
Caught in the middle of this wrestling match is the young and ambitious Levee, who insists that he can create his own music while still appeasing white culture in the process. Believing that he can manipulate the system in his favor, Levee repeatedly attempts to show the value of his work yet is unable to find support from either the white producers who promised him fame or his own African-American bandmates. Unfortunately, with each roadblock that he encounters, the energetic Levee has greater difficulty battling the seething rage that bubbles underneath his smiling and optimistic exterior until he can no longer contain himself. Like the music that he longs to play, Levee’s journey points to a generation of African American youth that want desperately to have a seat at the table but ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a predominantly white culture that fails to appreciate the importance of their story.
Anchored by incredible work from Davis and Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom demands attention. By allowing the performances to take centre stage, Wolfe wisely steps back and gives his cast the freedom they need to make stunning music together onscreen. Playing off of each other like fine jazz, Boseman, Davis and the rest of this cast are note-perfect together in a story that reminds us that the power of music lies in its voice.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix+ on December 18th, 2020.