Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

ma raineys black bottom poster 2020 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Slick, smart, thoughtful with great performances by Boseman and Davis

Sometimes feels more like a recorded play than a movie due to the style of writing

Movie Info

Movie Name: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Studio: Netflix

Genre(s): Drama/Musical

Release Date(s):  November 25, 2020 (US)/December 18, 2020 (Netflix)

MPAA Rating: R

ma raineys black bottom viola davis singing

Ma gets what she wants!

At the Hot Rhythm Recording Studio in Chicago, tensions are running high.  It is 1927 and hot, and Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is running late for the session much to the anger of the studio owner M.L. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).  Ma has demands and her success allows her to get what she wants be it her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) being part of the recording or keeping everyone’s hands off her flirtatious girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).  The band has their own problems.  While Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Toledo (Gynn Tuman) simply want to do their job and not raise any problems with Ma, the young, ambitious, firecracker trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) sees his own future and dreams…and with a potential recording deal with Sturdyvant, nothing can get in his way!

ma raineys black bottom chadwick boseman trumpet

Call me Gabriel

Directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a musical drama.  The film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play and was part of a ten picture deal that started at HBO (Fences was the first film in the deal).  The film received a theatrical release in November 2020 and was released on Netflix on December 18, 2020.  The film received Academy Awards for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Costume Design with nominations for Best Actor (Boseman) and Best Actress (Davis).

Plays adapted for screen don’t always work.  They often feel like plays and that hinders the ability to escape into them on the screen.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a play adapted to the screen, but the performances and style of the movie outweigh any problems that the script has adapting to a different format.

The story is a strange blend of class and race.  There is the haves like Ma Rainey and the have-nots like her band…but add on top of that the “even more” haves of people like the recording studio owner who bleeds and leeches off of Rainey and eventually Levee while pandering to them at the same time.  Ma Rainey might be pulling the strings and it is a success for her but in the grand scheme of things, she’s still a pawn that outside of the studio is questioned by police for being in a nice car.  Ma’s flipside is Levee who is suppressed by Ma and can’t even get the shot he feels he deserves and has been promised (only for it to crush him…and a shiny white band to use his words).

ma raineys black bottom chadwick boseman

You are able to kick down one door and run right into another dead end…

The film is Chadwick Boseman’s last role, and he died from cancer shortly after completing it (but you wouldn’t know he was sick by the performance).  Boseman rages and fights years of suppression in his speeches which is more than someone that is only thirty-three should have.  He’s arrogant and cocky and he’s good…but due to the social structure of the time, that gets him into more trouble than it helps.  Viola Davis likewise gives a great performance (almost unrecognizable) as Ma Rainey.  She too is cock and arrogant, but she’s already proven herself…anyone that goes up against her is a threat.  She’s been molded into someone who attacks people she sees as rivals instead of lifting them up and helping them find fame.  It is kind of a sad form of racism that is less overt but more ingrained.  In the end, no matter how much she flexes and complains, she has to play by their rules to get paid.

ma raineys black bottom coke drinking viola davis

Flex and enjoy that Coke

The movie looks good.  With pretty minimal locations (it take place in the recording studio with a couple exterior locations), the movie has to find ways to cleverly tell its story.  There is the literal “upstairs/downstairs” story with the musicians in the basement, Ma on the ground floor, and the people producing in the booth, but there is also just a great aesthetic created in the film that shows what being an entertainer at the time meant.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a good film that has value in rewatching it.  With a solid and thought provoking script, two great performances, and a look that helps tell the story, it is something that can be watched and enjoyed on the surface, but also explored and studied as a sign of the times (and what has and hasn’t changed).  The movie is a great reminder of what was lost by Boseman’s sudden and far too young of death.  Many people would love to go out on top, and Boseman did with this movie.

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Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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