In a mesmerizing final performance from Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an electrifying introduction to one of the biggest names and voices in blues music. Directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf, and Todd Black, the film is a history lesson in race, music, and perseverance.
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await the trailblazing performer and legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Fashionably late, she clashes with her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) over control of her music. As the band awaits in a four-man petri dish of a rehearsal room, an overly ambitious Levee (Chadwick Boseman) conjures an outpouring of stories from his bandmates. Without knowing it, these truths would forever change the course of their lives.
The film was adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, which premiered on Broadway in 1984. It’s the only play of Wilson’s that’s not set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The 10 plays he wrote were part of his acclaimed “American Century Cycle” series charting the African American experience throughout the twentieth century.
While the story is based on an actual person, the film is fiction. In the beginning, you’re introduced to Ma’ at one of her performances. A packed house is overflowing with patrons waiting for their chance to catch the queen in action. Then it shifts to Levee, a recently hired coronet player who fancies himself the next Louis Armstrong, and sees his time in Chicago as a chance to break free from structure and go in a different direction. While waiting for Ma’ to arrive at the studio, he convinces the elders in the group to lend an ear and eventually share their own testimonies.
Ma’ moved to her own beat and didn’t take jack from anyone. She knew the game and knew it well. Her skepticism about recording in Chicago was a familiar feeling that black people had during that time. Having white people steal and take credit for the work of black artists, musicians, and inventors was nothing new. She controlled her shows, her tours, and stuck to what she knew: the South. She knew just what buttons to push to get her way and gave a cold line in the film about why she talked to white people the way she did. Viola Davis was stellar.
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She left home as a teenager so that she could perform on the Black minstrel troupe circuit in the South. She was married to vaudeville singer William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, which led to her changing her name to “Ma” Rainey. After signing with Paramount Records at the age of 38, she made her first recordings in Chicago, ultimately recording over 100 songs. Rainey was one of the first African American professional blues singers and many of her songs became blues standards, resulting in her being known as the “Mother of the Blues.” In 1912, Rainey hired a teenage Bessie Smith, a legend in her own right, as a dancer. Her influence had no limits, even impacting Black literature and drama from poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Allen Brown to Alice Waters. Ma Rainey ran three theaters in Columbus, Georgia before she died of a heart attack in 1939.
I give Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a 9.5 out of 10. Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis are extraordinary in their roles and I wouldn’t be shocked if those names start to float around during awards season. After its short theater run, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be available to stream on Netflix on December 18.
Photos: Courtesy of Netflix