Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
by George Wolf
In 1927 Chicago, four musicians – three vets and a brash youngster – gather in the basement of a downtown recording studio. They tune up and rib each other, waiting for the star vocalist to arrive.
That would be one Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, legendary “Mother of the Blues” and one of the first blues singers to make records. And in the late 1920s, those records sold, which meant Ma didn’t waste her time in studio basements.
That spatial divide becomes the metaphorical anchor in director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play. And thanks to the blistering adversarial performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, the film has a show-stopping pillar on each floor.
Boseman is electric as Levee, the ambitious trumpet player who’s not only ready to give Ma’s tunes some new swing, but also to break away and record some of his own compositions.
Ma ain’t having any of that, or anything else that doesn’t smell the least bit right to Ma. And Davis, surprising no one, effortlessly embodies the blues legend with a smoldering, defiant ferocity.
Early on, the rehearsal conversations still carry the aura of the stage, but this is Wolfe reinforcing the different worlds co-existing here, a difference that will be pivotal as events escalate.
Wilson’s source work is another compelling example of his ability to explore the Black experience in America through the piercing intimacy of his characters. Ma’s records are selling, which gives her leverage over the white record producers. She exploits that leverage at every turn, but it only takes one cold, world-weary stare from the transcendent Davis to remind you how little illusions Ma has about any of it.
Boseman’s work will undoubtedly earn an Oscar nomination, which will be nothing but well-deserved. Labeling Boseman’s final performance as his finest may smack of sentimentality – at least until you experience it. Then you realize how gracefully Boseman claims this story for Levee, and for the countless real life souls he represents.
It is Levee’s arc that carries this film’s very soul, and Boseman’s chemistry with the stellar ensemble of Glynn Turman, Coleman Domingo and Michael Potts is a thing of beauty. As Levee moves from the cocky enthusiasm of the gifted to the painful cry of the oppressed, Boseman’s bittersweet goodbye becomes doubly heartbreaking.
This is an elegant, artful salute to great art, and a sobering reminder of a shameful legacy marked by exploitation and appropriation. And it is thanks to a collection of great artists that Ma Rainey comes to the screen with all of its joy and pain intact.