Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

By Peter Debruge

In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” introductions matter. Whether or not audiences know the real Ma Rainey’s reputation as “mother of the blues,” August Wilson ensures that this musical pioneer is a larger-than-life character even before she steps foot onstage. And because Netflix’s socko feature adaptation marks the final role of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, whose death in August caught the film world by surprise, exits assume a stirring poignancy as well.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

The year is 1927, and Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) has been booked to record a few of her best-known songs, including the title number, — all hits on the minstrel show circuit — at a studio on the South Side of Chicago. Two white men, her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and album producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), fret about whether she will show up on time — or at all — which is enough for viewers to conclude that Ma Rainey’s some kind of prima donna. Her hand-picked “Georgia Band,” including hotshot horn player Levee (Boseman), arrives well before Ma, rehearsing downstairs while they wait for the boss lady to make her big entrance. And so she does.

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