The 1920s were a time when Black Americans had very little power, but one place they had a greater amount of control was in the entertainment industry. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent look at how Ma Rainey understood her power, and knew how to use it so it would last as long as possible. Those in her melodic orbit may try to change things for their own agenda, setting up tension between Ma, her band, her agent, and record execs. All these forces at play create an amazing movie with a couple great musical performances.
As Real As It Gets
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on a play from the mid-80s, and the movie hues pretty close to its theatrical roots, the recording studio is where about 90% of the movie takes place. Ma Rainey was a real person and Viola Davis brings her to life beautifully. Ma makes the rules and takes her sweet time during the recording session. She knows once they have her voice, they don’t need her anymore. So from having sodas on set to getting her stuttering nephew to introduce the song, she uses her power to get everything she wants while the gettin’s good.
To call her a diva would missing her soul entirely. Ma knows people won’t be caring about her every need for long, so she’s looking out for herself and the others who stay in her good graces.
But the real standout performance comes from Chadwick Boseman’s Levee. He’s a trumpet player with big time talent and big time dreams. Levee butts heads with just about everyone from trying to change Ma’s arrangement to fighting with the band, to the recording studio head who tries to cheat Levee out of his songs. Chadwick made this movie while he was fighting cancer, and may have known this would be his swan song. Every moment he is on screen is a masterpiece. He hides Levee’s pain with a smile while keeping the anger of his mental scars simmering just below the surface.
Boseman’s already won the Golden Globe for his performance, and an Oscar isn’t that far behind.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I’m having Ma Rainey’s favorite recording refreshment: a Coke. I’m sure hers didn’t have any rum in it since it was the twenties and prohibition was in force. I’ll make up for that by making mine a double. Cheers!