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New Release Review [Netflix] - MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review
Tensions rise when Blues singer Ma Rainey arrives in Chicago for a recording session.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: George C. Wolfe

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom poster

Director George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opens with a cinematic sleight of hand. It's sleepy time down South, and in the moonlit woods a pair of young Black boys run through the bush in a state of panic. Thanks to decades of Hollywood portraying African-Americans as victims, we automatically assume the worst, that these boys are literally running for their lives, pursued by some angry lynch mob. But these lads aren't running for their lives, they're running for the time of their lives. As they emerge from the woods and into a makeshift tent, we understand just what induced their panic - they were afraid they'd miss out on a performance by "The Mother of the Blues", singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis).

This transition is illustrative of the arc of Rainey's career. She began singing the Blues back when they really were the Blues, a vocal expression of the hardship of African-American life in the early 20th century. As her career progressed she became a key figure in the birth of Jazz, a musical expression of the joy of African-American life in the early 20th century. In the 1920s she helped a young Louis Armstrong become a star, while her tour with bandleader Tommy Dorsey made her one of the first major African-American stars to reach a White audience. Away from the recording studio, Rainey was known for her bisexuality, engaging in orgies with her female backing dancers; her 1928 recording 'Prove It on Me' is considered the first mainstream song with affirmative lesbian references in its lyrics.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review

For someone who was so progressive in both her artistic and personal lives, it's odd that Rainey is portrayed as a stubborn stick in the mud by Wilson and Wolfe. Set in a Chicago recording studio on a sweltering afternoon, much of the conflict of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is driven by an angry young man with a horn, trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Levee has joined up with Rainey's regular musicians - trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) - to cut a record for exploitative producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Rainey's trio just want to play the tunes and get paid in cash, but Levee has greater ambitions. Like many innovative musicians of the time, he's determined to turn the Blues into Jazz, and has come up with his own arrangements for Rainey's standards.


You only have to listen to Rainey and Armstrong's 1924 recording of 'See See Rider' to surmise that Rainey would likely have been receptive of Levee's ideas, but I guess Wilson decided that conflict between the trumpeter and the vocalist was necessary to make his melodrama sing. In this iteration, Rainey wants her songs recorded in traditional style, and grows angry at Levee's "improvising on a theme." It doesn't help that Levee is making a play for Rainey's current squeeze, gorgeous young dancer Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review

Echoing Jazz, it's the trombonist and trumpeter who clash while the pianist and bassist maintain a steady rhythm in the background. Cutler fights Rainey's corner and mocks Levee's notions of turning his craft into an art form. Their bickering turns to more serious matters, like Levee's perceived cow-towing to his White producers, and they eventually come to blows in a heated row over the existence of God.

All of this halts in the presence of Rainey, like a teacher entering a boisterous classroom. While the band members bow to the White producers, the latter in turn acquiesce to Rainey, who seems to enjoy being one of the few Black women in America to wield such power. Whether Black or White, the drama suggests, we all have to kiss the hand that feeds us. Levee's refusal to play the game eventually leads to dire consequences (and a final action on his part that's a little hard to swallow).


Working with Jazz pioneers like Armstrong, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet, Rainey was known for giving young musicians a chance. We see a glimpse of this here in how she insists on her young nephew (Dusan Brown) recording a vocal intro for the eponymous song, despite his struggles with a stammer. At first this plays like a cruel joke, but Rainey's insistence that the young boy will get it right no matter how many takes might be required shows just how determined she was, so it's odd that the film otherwise portrays her as so resistant to Levee's ideas.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review

Similarly, Davis's voice doesn't sound much like Rainey's, though she sure can belt out a tune. The movie's highlight is a thunderous rendition of the song it takes its title from - you really do believe everyone involved is an accomplished musician, and it's a shame we don't get more musical sequences.

In adapting Wilson's play, Wolfe is as resistant to innovation as his fictional version of Rainey. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom falls very much into the category of "filmed play" rather than screen adaptation, too reliant on monologuing in its character development, too rigid with the source material to improvise on its theme. Still, when you have actors as powerful as Boseman and Davis on hand, that's not so bad. In his final performance, Boseman is a livewire, convincingly essaying a character a generation younger than himself. There's a sad symmetry between Boseman and Levee, as two talents cut down just as they should be ascending.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
 is on Netflix from December 18th.

2020 movie reviews