The late Chadwick Boseman gave us the performance of his career in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — this one cuts deep.
The late Chadwick Boseman gave the performance of his career in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A combination of youthful arrogance, while projecting the damaging effects of overbearing moral solidarity, and the loss of a social one.
Viola Davis delivers another powerhouse turn as Ma Rainey, an embittered, controlling, authoritative Diva who is the mother of the blues. She has the rare power, as an African-American singer, who can call her shots. She browbeats her manager, Ivan (Jeremy Shamos), hourly. He struggles to be the middle man between her and the studio recording her latest album.
Her band is a mix of the old guard and the new. Levee (Boseman) has his eyes on Ma Rainey’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (White Boy Rick’s Taylour Paige). The only thing that outmatches his mouth is his ambitious trumpet playing as he tries to leave the jug music back in the south. Cutler (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Colman Domingo) is the bandleader and a man of faith. Toledo (The Way Back’s Glyn Turman) massages the blues on the keys, and Slow Drag (The Wire’s Michael Potts) plays the double bass like it’s no one’s business.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was directed by George C. Wolf and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. This reunites them for the first time since creating one of the great television movies of the past twenty-years, HBO’s Lackawanna Blues. Like that film, Rainey has a well built-in sense of time and place. The script, by Santiago-Hudson, has powerful themes taking place after the Great Migration; all while being placed during a period of the fall of Reconstruction and the onset of the Great Depression. Even when the African-American community was knee-deep in religion as a way to cope, the Social Gospel movement was being used against them.
For instance, there is a moment in the film that illustrates this very point. In the film’s very best scene, Boseman’s Levee questions Domingo’s Cutler’s faith in God. Cutler has coped with the harsh ways of the world with his entrenched faith. Levee’s anger and beliefs about God cracks the only protection he has ever known.
What happens next is an image of stunning raw power and deep painful resonance. Boseman leaves everything on the floor, with nothing to spare, as he questions God’s plan. He wonders how could something so cruel happen to him and his family. It’s a moment you cannot help but wonder if he was drawing inspiration from his own situation. It’s one of the year’s most powerful and overwhelming.
If anything, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does suffer from being too steeped in a stage quality experience that can’t be shaken. This is understandable, considering Wolf’s award-winning history in the theatre. Shamos, impart, brings nothing new to a cliched role that could have used some juice and a different angle to play from.
Though, this is an actor’s showcase with heavy themes that reflect a time that has not progressed easily. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom showcases the maltreatment at the hands of others, emotional, oppressive, and physical. What happens next is a cycle of abuse of one group violently hurting each other as a way to cope with the harshness of a cruel, segregated world. By the end of the film, it cuts deep, and more than most of us will ever know.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.