Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, “Mother of the Blues,” performed in the early 1900s (primarily in the South), and throughout the 1920s, she recorded more than a hundred songs. Rainey retired in the early ‘30s, but her legacy lived on: in 1982, the year before she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, August Wilson wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Denzel Washington has vowed to produce Wilson’s 10 Century Cycle plays for film and television, and he produced, directed and starred in Fences in 2016. His co-star in that film, Viola Davis, took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and now she is back in the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Set at a recording session held in Chicago in 1927, the film revolves around a scowling Rainey (Davis) and her demanding personality along with the upstart young trumpeter Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final film role. Ma seems to hold disdain for just about all of humanity, glaring at everyone she passes on the way to the studio and throwing a fit when things do not go quite her way. Levee is angry too, but is also manic, bouncing around the room joking with his bandmates one moment and picking a fight with them the next. Eventually, we find out why both act out the way they do, which lends a bit more sympathy to their characters.a
The acting is superb from top to, well, bottom. Davis is almost unrecognizable as Ma Rainey, and she conveys the joy that Ma felt when singing—especially when she was in front of a crowd instead of a studio microphone. And Boseman, wiry and full of energy, once again shows his range as he reveals not only the cause for his depth of anger but also the strategy behind his obsequiousness toward the white record producer who is paying for their session. It is another reminder of his enormous potential as an actor and the wonderful performances we will never get to see.
My only complaint with the film is that it comes off more like a play than a movie. It is great to respect the source material, but it feels like it would have been more successful by either just filming the stage production or by going full-on cinematic. At just over 90 minutes, there is so much room for more musical numbers. Still, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the best films in this very limited year.