To talk about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we’ll begin at the end. The very last scene of the film is not in August Wilson’s original play, but it’s a gut punch that reminds us of the pervasive theft of black culture, and that what might appear anodyne could be covering layers of struggle and pain.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1920s Chicago, and tells a fictional story of the recording of the titular song by the very real “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, and her band. It thankfully doesn’t shy away from its roots as a play, because Wilson’s work is extraordinary—he mesmerizes and exhausts us with his words, as Rainey’s accompanists first talk amongst themselves while waiting for Ma to arrive, and then deal with the tempest that is Ma Rainey herself.
Most prominent in the group, at least in terms of sheer volume of words, is the young, brash trumpet player Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman. Boseman’s Levee is electric, with a wiry frame and a high-pitched voice, seemingly supremely confident that he’s got the musical style people want to hear, and, frankly, he’s right—though he may have been a few years early.
And then Hurricane Ma blows in, and they get to work—on her terms. Rainey is a huge personality, one who appears chaotic but demands total control over every aspect of the proceedings. Viola Davis brilliantly plays her at multiple volumes at once—we can see that Ma’s demands for all control are necessary for her to maintain any control while dealing with the white music industry, and it reveals to us how nearly everything these black characters do involves some sort of negotiation with white society.
I didn’t love every single thing director George C. Wolfe did to make the film more cinematic, but I understand not wanting just to put a play on film. That said, I wouldn’t have minded—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a knockout of a work, and one that both celebrates black art and reminds us of its difficult legacy.