The squeak of a brand new pair of shoes. The bustling noises of the city of Chicago. The overwhelming summer heat. And above all else, the sweet, comforting sound of the blues. These simple but symbolic elements all factor into the great work of film that is Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe and based on the 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson.
The play and film are inspired by the real life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and also known as the “Mother of the Blues.” She performed as an active musician from 1899 to 1935, and made over 100 recordings, some of which included other famous musicians such as Thomas Dorsey and Louis Armstrong. While her music may have been trending several decades ago, her legacy lives on in American music history and popular culture.
The film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, following the setup of a typical theatrical play, takes place in one primary location: a recording studio in Chicago, set in 1927. While the film does not offer much variety in terms of setting, it makes up for the mundane location through its use of colorful and era-appropriate costumes, makeup, and hair. It is a reflection of a time in American history that was filled with iconic “Roaring 20s” aesthetics, such as flapper dresses and dancing the Charleston, but was also clouded with social issues regarding race, class, wealth, and the different intentions behind obtaining the American Dream.
The best parts of the film are the astounding performances by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman as Ma Rainey and Levee the trumpet player, respectively. While the rest of the cast also does a stupendous job of depicting Ma Rainey’s fellow band members and the white music producers that she butts heads with, Davis’ and Boseman’s portrayals are truly something to behold.
Viola Davis shines as the titular character of Ma Rainey, who is powerful and awe-inspiring in both her music and her personality. The opening scene of the film shows Ma Rainey performing a show in Georgia, complete with a huge crowd, backup dancers, and a fun, melodious band. This scene establishes Ma Rainey’s already wide-spread popularity and acclaimed talent; she has already risen up the ranks to become one of the most respected musicians in America.
This opening performance serves as a stark contrast to the rest of the film, which takes place in a dusty and sweltering Chicago recording studio. In the studio, there are no crowds, no thunderous applause, and no dancers. For the purpose of recording her album, Ma Rainey’s band is there, composed of Toledo the pianist (Glynn Turman), Cutler the trombone player (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag the double bass player (Michael Potts), and of course, Levee Green the trumpeter (Chadwick Boseman). For a large portion of the film, the band waits in a separate room, rehearsing Ma’s songs and listening to the witty stories and proclamations of Levee.
Ma Rainey is also accompanied by her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who has a stutter but is determined to record a talking segment on the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) is a young, attractive woman who is heavily hinted to be Ma’s girlfriend; she also comes along with Ma, but stirs up trouble by flirting with Levee in the band rehearsal room.
One of the main conflicts of the film stems from the constant clashing between Ma Rainey and her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), as well as with Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the owner of the recording studio. Irvin is fully aware of Ma’s talent and popularity, and spends most of the film apologizing and fulfilling her every request in order to get her to record the album. Mr. Sturdyvant, on the other hand, is much less forgiving and has visibly less respect for Ma. It is clear that he only cares about recording her album for his own financial gain.
Throughout multiple arguments with the two white men who are supposed to be in charge of the recording, Ma initially comes off as too demanding and pushy, such as when she refuses to start singing until someone has provided her with an ice cold Coca-Cola (and who could blame her? I felt sweaty just from watching the waves of summer heat on my TV screen).
However, there is a much deeper intention and meaning behind her actions. As stated in a behind the scenes featurette for the film, Ma’s character is not difficult just for the sake of being difficult, or just to prove something about being a big music star. She is making a point about standing up to the white men that are in charge, and making them work for her rather than simply doing as they say. She is defiant in the face of their racism, which is especially obvious through Mr. Sturdyvant’s rude and dismissive treatment of Ma. Rather than cater to them just because they are white and in a position of power, Ma Rainey takes control of the situation herself and makes her manager and music producer work for her instead. She is bold, powerful, and determined to do things her way, or not at all.
Opposite Ma stands Levee Green, the rebellious and charismatic trumpet player who is a part of her accompanying band. It breaks my heart a little to see the wonderful and talented Chadwick Boseman on screen again, knowing that he was one of the many good souls to pass away in 2020. His portrayal of Levee is his first posthumous role to be shown on the big screen.
Levee’s character is quite the wild ride. Considerably younger than the rest of the band members, Levee has big dreams to have his own band and play his trumpet for crowds even bigger than Ma’s. He is fully aware of his own talent and determined to show it off to the rest of the world. He even writes his own songs and turns them into Mr. Sturdyvant for consideration, although he is rejected. Levee’s personality switches around several times throughout the film, adding a lot of dimension to his character through impressive monologues and heartfelt storytelling.
The environment starts out casual as the band members joke around with each other, chastising Levee for his silly dreams to become his own professional musician. While he plays along at first, a comment made about how to “deal with the white man” stirs something inside Levee. He tells a painful and traumatic story about his childhood and the horrific crime that a group of white men committed against his parents, turning the mood very dark and sad. Soon after, he is back to his upbeat self, but quickly butts heads with Ma about how he wants to perform his trumpet segments in her song recording. She fires him, and is also visibly angry about the flirtatious encounters between him and Dussie Mae.
With the recordings finished, the band members return to the rehearsal room in the basement, where another big argument with Levee ensues. I don’t want to spoil it, but Levee commits an act so unexpected and shocking, it’s hard to process immediately as the end credits start to roll. The film concludes with the joyless scene of a group of white men performing Levee’s original song, which was rejected earlier on, as Mr. Sturdyvant cunningly supervises.
Truthfully, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom won’t appeal to everyone. Since it is based on a play, it may come off as boring or too monotonous for some audiences. However, the film’s impact goes further than just its main plotline. It contains important messages about valuing yourself, how you let others treat you, and also explores harrowing themes of racism and discrimination. The film is worth a watch for the catchy songs, the compelling character development, and above all else, the Oscar-worthy performances by Viola Davis and the dearly missed Chadwick Boseman.