In a year when thousands gathered on the streets chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom finding screen space appears like a detailed explanation to why the movement is so important to many across the world. In the undertones of recording an album, the film unabashedly talks about social injustice, oppression and racism in late ‘1920s.
Based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, the Netflix film begins with a concert in a tent. It is a sweaty and sensual extravaganza of the blues in action as the workers line up to listen to the ‘Mother of the Blues’. After introducing the audience to Ma Rainey, one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers, we see her in Chicago recording an album with her band.
Undoubtedly Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are the cores of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottoms and early on director George C Wolfe makes it clear that the two will share the same spotlight. Viola as the titular character is a headstrong, starry woman who lives by “You play by my rules’ mantra. Even though she’s at the pinnacle of her game, she’s fighting for her worth at every moment. She knows she’ll be soon taken over by a new voice, but she also knows that if she exposes her vulnerabilities she’d succumb to society’s prejudices dictating her merit.
Contrary to Ma Rainey, Boseman’s Levee represents change. He’s impulsive and occupied with ‘I know what I’m doing’ but to all intents and purposes, he’s looking for a shortcut to be like Ma. He’s in perfect sync with his band on the stage, but his understanding of the world is completely off the tune with them. While he wants to make it big, his much more experienced band members have come to terms with their lives. It is through his ‘blasphemous’ conflicts with them that the film makes a commentary upon the cruelty the people of colour have endured over the years.
Having watched Davis in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play Fences and the comedy-drama The Help, it was expected of her to dominate the screen every time she mouthed a bossy dialogue as the unapologetic celebrity. So was Boseman. However, watching him as the loudmouth and ill-tempered Levee was a pleasant contrast to his popular superhero character Black Panther.
Sadly, Boseman passed away in August 2020 during the film’s post-production, making Black Bottom his final film appearance. Every time he’s on the screen you can’t help but wonder what an irreplaceable powerhouse of talent he was. It will be fair to say that his final screen moments are the finest in his acting career.
Apart from Davis and Boseman, one has to acknowledge the brilliance of film’s supporting cast — Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts. One gets to comprehend what these charismatic actors are capable of when their mere conversations in a rehearsal room give you a pictorial representation of what precisely happens when a person of colour is subjected to discrimination, public humiliation, emotional violation and sexual abuse.
The film neither exaggerates nor underplays racial tensions. Instead, the director impersonates it rather subtly in silent, awkward scenes when a group of black men walk through the Chicago streets or when they enter a store full of white people. In doing so, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hits the audience with a hard pungent punch when they’re least expecting it. There are no conversations in these scenes but the uneasiness and awkwardness are palpable.
For the most part of the film, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie. It’s more like you’re eavesdropping and listening to the private conversations of a band as they wait to record their song. However, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom can’t be treated as just another film you can watch while scrolling through your Instagram feed. It’s powerful, layered and must-watch. Don’t be surprised if you find the film as one of the favourites at the global awards, it is that good.