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“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” film review

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” film review

I’ve seen the film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that tells a little about the real story of Ma Rainey, known as “the mother of the blues” and one of the first professional African American blues singers and one of the first to record albums. She was responsible for promoting vaudeville, a popular entertainment style in the United States, which mixed various arts such as circus and burlesque literature, during her concerts and events.

The film, based on the award-winning play by August Wilson, is directed by George C. Wolfe, and takes place on a blistering day in Chicago in 1927 where the heat and the tension rise as the singer Ma Rainey, played by the always triumphant Viola Davis and her band begin to record a new album. The screenplay keeps the narrative similar to a play script, in terms of style, long dialogues, and monologues. As well as it resolves in a single cut-out moment/sequence of the artist’s life and career history. The historical event explores what’s going on before, during and after Ma Rainey album recording. 

In the first minutes of the film, the musicians who are part of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom band are introduced. Among musicians, we easily connect with the trumpet player, Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, taken from us way too soon, who chose this difficult material to play while living with cancer. Levee is the youngest, most talented, charming, daring, ambitious and troublemaker horn musician at Ma Rainey’s band, who dreams of pursuing a solo career. He wants to arrange existing songs and compose his own music, also intends to start his band and leave Ma Rainey’s band. He takes advantage of the band’s rehearsal to show one of his new songs to the owner of the recording studio company. 

In addition, her band is composed of Cutler (Colman Domingo), the trombonist, who serves as the boss by proxy, the bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and the piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman). The musicians are the first to arrive and meet Ma’s agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) at the rather rundown recording studio where they are to record an album of Ma’s biggest numbers (and a Bessie Smith cover or two, which is sure to ruffle Ma’s feathers). 

Meanwhile, Ma Rainey’s agent and musicians are waiting for her. Moody and full of whims, she takes the reins of her professional and personal life, facing a society dominated by white men. Late for recording, the mother of the blues does not accept being controlled by anyone and refuses to accept new musical arrangements in her songs or even that men choose the way she will perform. She makes it clear: she is the boss! 

There’s a tension between Ma and Levee as they keep confronting each other all the time, maintaining the conflict that we expect will somehow explode, especially because Levee flirts with Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Ma Rainey’s love affection.

Ma Rainey obliges agent Irvin to include her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) do the spoken introduction to the song, but he is stuttering and causes stress during the recording production, leaving everyone’s nerves on edge and increasing the tension between the star and his horn, which culminates in Ma Rainey loses her temper and cancels the recording session, afterwards, her stunning performance hasn’t been recorded because of a technical failure.

The highlight of the film is for sure Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman acting performances. The legendary actress Viola Davis is outstanding as the Mother of blues and her job gave her a nomination for Best Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards edition. Davis tour de force is easily identified through her body composition, facial expressions and voice tone that looking at Ma Rainey original photos, it is as if the actress had incarnated the Blues Diva. 

Boseman was brave in his last performance. He will be remembered for that. His best acting moments are: First, when Levee describes witnessing the horrific violation of his mother by eight or nine white men. They only stopped when one of the men cut the young Levee’s chest, scarring him for life. Second, and even more terrifying, with Levee raging against Cutler’s religiosity, asking him where his God was when this horrible thing was happening. It’s in this moment that the distance between fiction and reality transcended and get together. Boseman knew he was dying when he performed this monologue, and some of the things he’s saying as Levee sound like questions one would ask oneself if facing one’s own mortality.   

The screenplay made a mistake in not delving deeply into two of the themes that it brought up: first, the biography of the avant-garde blues singer and second, the struggle of black artists to survive from their art, in the United States in the 20th century. The premise is not clear what is about. There’s a deep dialogue when Ma Rainey say to Cutler that white people don’t care about her, they just want her voice. That was a hook to go through this subject, but it wasn’t explored.

As I already mentioned above, the features of the screenplay do not allow the story to develop its characters, because of the historical cut-out and absence of ellipsis chosen by the director and writer. I miss knowing more about Ma Rainey’s biography, to delve deeper into her issues as a colour artist in the 20 century, and its social-political and cultural environment where they were placed at that time. They would have had many topics to depict like racism and the black community of artists, the vaudeville movement. Apart from Levee, who we see his changes, Ma Rainey character arc doesn’t show her transformation or movement towards new paths. It’s too vague. In terms of the screenplay structure, the film is predictable, without turning points, plot twister … even the tragic climax is not surprising. 

I appreciate Netflix’s project to pay tribute to renowned play texts and turn them into Cinema, but for the second time (the first was “The Boys in the band”), I see that there was a lack of poetic daring to transform a classic play text into a screenplay that flirts with the language of contemporary cinema. Despite the cons of this film, it is always wonderful to see Viola Davis teaching what the art of acting is.

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I am a script and creative writer, journalist, producer, and marketing content developer with over 9 years of experience in Media (TV / Film Production), Communication, Journalism and Marketing. I worked for companies such as MTV, Animal Planet, Band, Discovery and, Fremantle Media. I am from Brazil, but I've been living in Dublin, Ireland, since 2017. I am also maniac for entertainment and pop culture.
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