It’s one of the most dogged days in Chicago, 1927. The trailblazing Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey (portrayed brilliantly and almost menacingly by Viola Davis), is scheduled for an afternoon recording session of her ultimate hit, “Black Bottom.” It’s sizzling outside, but the heat on the street is nothing compared to the heat that is promised to be inside the studio. Ma is unsurprisingly and understandably too hot to handle even by his long-time white manager and producer; and, that’s a recipe for a heated trouble. To add to the recipe, there’s the hot-headed Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman in a posthumous excellence) staging a breakthrough coup d’état to boost up his own musical career. Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a showcase of fiery performances by the leads and a poignant to-the-face blow to the white capitalism.
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It’s easy to slip into questioning the heroine’s difficult behavior as an act of unprofessionalism. She comes late to the studio along with her entourage and unashamedly makes a scene upon arrival—scorching a white police officer wearing his racial bias on the sleeve and forcing Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), her manager, to deal with the trouble. Meanwhile, inside the claustrophobic band room, Leeve is being vocal about his aspiration and musical integrity while offending his seasoned band-mates (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts) in the process. There’s almost a case of comparison and contrast in the display so far. The legendary Mother of the Blues is proven to be a pain in the ass for the white execs like an ungrateful maniac; meanwhile, young Levee is selling his talent as he solicits the same white chaps for a promise of fruitful future. Between Ma and Levee, there lies the elephant in the room; Ma sees it clearly and reacts to it almost violently; meanwhile, Levee is unaware of it and he will only learn of it the hard way.
Davis—with thick, smeared make-ups—brings along the titular character’s fiery persona to the screen, spitting rapid dialogues to her co-star in an all-out intimidating manner. Her character will not make it any easier and Davis will exude the villainous atmosphere that we almost swallow immediately without chewing it. Imagine waiting for hours only to find your main star f—k up, insisting for gazillion re-takes to find the best opening speech delivered by her stuttered nephew or refusing to sing just because there’s no Coca Cola in the room. With such kinds of nonsensical whims, it’s easy to judge her as a sardonic villain and root to the other character instead. On the other side of the room, Levee proves his worth. His young, energetic performance keeps livening up the claustrophobic room even when his idealistic views are mostly flawed. He’s a naïve, hopeful musician with a traumatic past and Boseman emanates his backstories with committed performance that only makes us regretting his untimely passing.
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As the narrative progresses, however, Ma Rainey will unravel the secret behind her vilifying behavior; it’s her disappointment over white capitalists like the producer and studio owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who will act care because they need her voice. Once they got what they desire, they will only milk money out of her talent and sell it for fellow white folks. When they don’t capitalize the black assets, they whitewash whatever they buy cheaply from struggling black artists and make it their own. It’s something that a young fella like Levee wouldn’t be able to see, but seasoned musicians have seen over and over again. For that, Ma Rainey’s making up her mind and setting for a proverbial revenge.
For all the worth, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom houses two incredible performance by two incredible performers—Davis and Boseman. Their on-screen personas respectively exude unending energy that can only be contained by the film’s stage-play inspired setting bringing claustrophobic feels. For the portrayed black musicians, the claustrophobic atmosphere represents how limited their opportunity is due to the racial tensions and cunning white capitalists running the industry. In the light of that, Ma Rainey is the symbol of fight and the fight itself; that’s what makes her a legend.