Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

"Your god ain't shit, Cutler. Your god ain't shit."

Certainly the highest profile work of director George C. Wolfe's filmography, the Netflix release of the film version of August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is of course being noted for yet another awards-worthy performance from Viola Davis, and on a somber note for Chadwick Boseman's final role of his career, cut short by colon cancer earlier this year.

One of the earliest and most prominent African-American blues singers, the "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey (Davis) bridged vaudeville and southern blues in late 1920s Chicago. The center of the Great Migration, countless thousands of Black families moved from the South to Northern cities eager for work and a relief from the de jure racism of Jim Crow. We join her bandmates first as they await her arrival at a recording session -- trumpeter Levee Green (Boseman), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), guitarist Cutler (Colman Domingo), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) -- along with their White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and the owner of the studio named Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).

The all Black band argue about rehearsing as they await Ma, late as usual, with the fiery newest member Levee fighting about his place in the group, knowing his talent is probably not shining through as he would like. The titular song itself is the biggest disagreement, over whose "arrangement" is to be played. Ma finally arrives, flamboyant and boisterous, with her beautiful young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), of whom Levee is immediately smitten. Over this one day, Ma and her manager Irvin bicker over the same song, of her traditional style versus the faster pace the public demands, and one way or another this afternoon will be an eventful one.

August Wilson's Tony Award-nominated play -- one of ten of the "Pittsburgh Cycle" including Fences and The Piano Lesson -- is adapted for the screen for the first time by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and like all of the Pulitzer Prize winner's works Ma Rainey's Black Bottom deals heavily with racial issues and American attitudes towards Black men and women of a certain era. Though Ma Rainey was indeed a real blues singer, this is far from a historical drama just following the eponymous star, as the story is rife with memories of trauma -- lynchings, discrimination, subservience -- and how to reconcile them with the present. Chicago 1927 now has African-Americans in new employment, and national stars like Ma herself, ready to demand the treatment she deserves from Whites not used to anyone of her stature. Davis plays her as a powerhouse of bravado and soul, a complicated figure as a (somewhat) out bisexual, knowing that her voice is what sells records yet still aware that she's only worth what audiences purchase. When her manager can't buy her a Coke, she knows why, and it's not because they can't afford it. (Davis doesn't sing most of the movie; that's veteran soul crooner Maxayn Lewis instead.)

Boseman saved perhaps the best performance of his short life for his very last one, full of righteous anger and wild ambition, further proof that his star shone so brightly up to the minute of his death. It shines on in this surefire Oscar-worthy role, with a particular monologue in the first act that will be the defining minute of his career highlight reel. It is a devastating and electrifying scene, part of a performance that's on one hand thrilling and sensational, and still on the other so profoundly sad and stunning that it is truly the last we will ever see of such a talent. Soak it up, watch his scenes with intention and care, and remember that this 43-year-old spent a decade without any meaningful credits entirely because Hollywood doesn't have enough roles for Black actors. Because of systemic industry racism, we were deprived of a dozen more films starring this generational star.

He died doing the best work of his career, cursing God in this film for abandoning him. If there is a god, he done fucked up by taking Chadwick Boseman about 50 years too soon.

Added to The Narrative Films of 2020, ranked.
Added to 2021 Independent Spirit Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to 2021 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.

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