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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gives you what you expect from Viola Davis, and in Chadwick Boseman’s final film, he makes it clear he could excel in a role of someone not already an icon.
|Director(s)||George C. Wolfe|
|Screenplay By||Ruben Santiago-Hudson|
|Date Released (Netflix)||12/18/2020|
|Genre(s)||Drama, Biopic, Musical, Historical|
|Duration||1 Hour 34 Minutes|
|Ma Rainey||Viola Davis|
|Mr. Sturdyvant||Jonny Coyne|
|Slow Drag||Michael Potts|
This content contains pertinent spoilers.
It’s 1927 Chicago, and the legendary Ma Rainey has a recording session lined up and, as usual, nothing about it seems to be going smooth. Her trumpet player Levee, who is trying to use working for Ma as a launchpad for his own career, he is arguing and fussing with Ma’s band, trying to kiss up to the engineer Mr. Sturdyvant, and get with Ma’s girl. Also, he is being rude to Ma and has the attitude of not giving a damn if he gets fired since he thinks he is about to be something.
As you can imagine, with him being a new buck and Ma’s other players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, all being men possibly old enough to be Levee’s father, they try to school him. However, ain’t no way to deal with a hot head than throw some water on him, but what happens when the fire goes out, and desperation comes in? Find out in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Things To Note | Question(s) Left Unanswered
- Reason(s) for Film Rating: Murder and sex, also a lot of cursing, including use of the N-word in every two to three sentences.
- Jump Scares/ Laughs/ Tear-Jerking Moments: You may find the conversations between Levee, Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag funny. That and Ma making Irvin trip over himself.
Collected Quote(s) & .Gifs
A fool is responsible for what happen to him. A fool cause it to happen.
Seeing Someone Like Ma Know Her Worth & Use That Power
We love Viola Davis as Ma Rainey because it doesn’t feel like many of the roles that have brought her prominence. Ma is a Black woman, who has gold teeth, isn’t skinny, nor cares about how much you like her. However, she is not an asshole. If anything, she knows her worth, and with that, she expects and demands respect, and for those unwilling to give it, be it a Black man, white man, cop, whoever, she’ll curse you out.
Seeing Davis play that is so freeing. For I think as she spoke about, when it came to her role in The Help, there almost feels like a certain betrayal when she plays roles that make her seem small. Now, don’t get me wrong, in The Help, Fences, and Doubt, she plays the hell out of her characters, and through their vulnerability, you can feel seen.
However, like Boseman seeming unable to do much besides playing historic figures, it seemed Davis got stuck being people who only know suffering. So with Ma walking around with her sugary baby on one side, nephew on the other, pushing Irv and Sturdyvant to respect her, it is the kind of performance you expect from Davis at this point. For she paid her dues in being the fodder for someone else’s greatness, their stepping stone, their whipping post, now it is her turn to not just be a wonderful scene partner, but the one who gets to control the room and shine without having to shed tears and have snot all over the place.
Ma’s Investment In Her People
But before we move on from Davis as Ma, can we note how beautiful it was to see her investment in her nephew? Granted, nepotism was a real thing in that situation, but look at it this way, the young man was Black and had a stutter. Life was going to be hard for him, no matter what. Yet, she spent her good time and patience to show he had worth. That his big-time aunt believed in him even when her band, and so many others, thought he couldn’t do a few sentences without a stutter.
In the last topic, we ended with how wonderful of a scene partner Davis is, and the scene she shared with Dusan Brown, who plays her nephew, is a prime example. I would liken it to how people speak about working with Meryl Streep in terms of having that moment that changed them and was a highlight of their career. For even if Davis was talking to Brown in character, hearing someone say that about someone you’re playing, and feeling that encouragement, you can see it affecting his life.
Heck, even beyond Sylvester, the way Ma interacts with Cutler, jokes with Slow Drag, and tries to humor Levee, it further helps you understand how matriarchal Black culture can be. Ma employs all these men, empowers them, and while she knows they have to show they can hang, she lets them be men – as long as they don’t try to dominate or undermine her.
I mean, with Levee, you can see the boy definitely was entertaining to her, it’s just he didn’t speak to her and make her part of what he wanted. He just tried to take it, and while Ma doesn’t mind helping people reach a dream, you can’t steal her shine to give yourself some.
The Stories Told
Ma, Levee, Toledo, and Cutler get to have the spotlight and tell a story. Ma has one of the lighter ones, which talks about her need for music to fill the silence. Cutler’s is about a third party and deals with faith and Toledo’s deals with his ex-wife.
But, the one which stands out is Levee’s, for it isn’t just a story told offhand, and that’s it. Levee’s story allows you to see his core and helps you understand the madness, and the way Boseman tells it will have you thinking he is not a supporting actor in Davis’ film but the male lead. For as Levee talks about his mother, his dad, and how that plays into how he treats Mr. Sturdyvant, it illuminates things.
Yet, it also speaks on the complicated relationship some Black people can have with faith, especially considering the United States’ history and what attitudes have long been enabled.
How Boseman Handled Playing The High Energy Levee
Levee is a big personality character, and you can tell after playing James Brown, amongst so many others, Boseman has learned how to play big without getting too close to the sun. One scene in particular worth noting is when Levee is talking to Mr. Sturdyvant about his music and how Boseman moves around Jonny Coyne, who plays Mr. Sturdyvant. His stepping up, even standing over Levee, shows that high, that energy, and as he doesn’t hear what he wants, you see him step down and make himself small.
Throughout the film, you can see the highs and lows and how movement represents the energy of Levee’s voice and how much power he feels in the situation. I can’t say whether or not it is masterful, for I don’t have a background in acting, but as a viewer, it is a nice touch that adds to the visual experience and how much body language matters as much as dialog.
I won’t say the soundtrack to this is going to be number 1, but I can imagine that, like a VS battle, Ma Rainey’s estate will rightfully pick up some larger checks because there isn’t a bad song in the movie. Well, outside the last one in the film due to it being a cover a la Pat Boone covering anything of Little Richard.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Doesn’t Overstay Its Welcome
Perhaps one of the top things we love about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is it isn’t a two-hour movie trying to explain or too deeply explore its characters or the world. You know what 1927 was like for Black folk, no need to explain racism. Also, Ma is a queer Black woman with gold teeth, size and is dark-skinned. You know life has been hard. So why explain it like you are a child?
Now, does this make you wish you got to know more of Ma Rainey’s story? Yes. But by focusing on this one day and the slew of incidents, you get what you need to want to learn more on your own. And that’s one of the things we appreciate. This doesn’t try to be any sort of definitive film on Ma Rainey besides giving you an idea of her look and attitude. It would rather push you to find a historian than act as one itself, for the goal here is to entertain you, get you to think about a few things, and press on.
While I’m sure some may find flaws in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I’m of the opinion those who find flaws were looking for them. Because what you get is powerful performances, memorable moments that can cement them in your memory, and not being asked to commit too long to the movie. Which, with a very limited amount of theaters playing this, is a blessing since streaming at home does not work for every film.
Hence the positive label and recommendation. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t seem like a film made for theaters that settled for Netflix. It comes off like a film that recognizes what you want is compelling performances, stories that keep you engaged, and realized that they are competing with all the other things you can not only watch but also do. Making this feel like probably one of the best films under the Netflix brand, which weren’t bought but made in-house.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Ending (Spoilers)
When it comes to Ma, while there is a lot of drama surrounding the recording, in the end, her people get paid, she gets paid, and she moves on. However, when it comes to Levee, he gets fired by Ma for mouthing out, and with Mr. Sturdyvant deciding he wants Levee’s music, but not Levee, he goes into a downward spiral.
Mind you, it isn’t his first one of the day. Talking about faith with Cutler leads him to pull a knife on Cutler and flip out. However, his dreams being stomped makes Toledo, the second man to step on Levee’s shoes in the band, what pushes him over. Hence him stabbing Toledo, who doesn’t take the shoe smudge seriously, and us watching Toledo die with no idea what came after.
Does Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Have Sequel Potential?
More so you can imagine a film about Ma Rainey in full, but the play this is based on didn’t have a sequel. So Levee and the others story ends here.