This year has brought us a lot of unexpected and amazing films, but I don’t think Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is arriving with low expectations. As the final performance on film from Chadwick Boseman and a continuation of August Wilson adaptations following Fences, the latest Netflix original has been gathering buzz for quite some time. Not to mention the spectacular first trailer that put both Boseman and Viola Davis front and center. The glue holding all these amazing creative forces together is director George C. Wolfe, known for bringing Angels in America to the stage in 1993. With all this in mind, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom looks to stun audiences, and it certainly succeeds.
The film starts on an incredible note that catches the viewer completely off guard. Two Black men run through the dark of night as if being pursued by something, only for it to be revealed that they are seeking out the echoing cry of Ma Rainey and her band. When they finally reach the place where she is performing, the film lights up like a Christmas tree. Here Viola Davis puts the most important part of this character to the forefront, commanding the stage and the screen with weight and gravitas. The story continues in a recording studio in Chicago, where Ma and her band are preparing to record a new album. As Ma is running late, her band rehearses and converses while waiting for her. This is where we meet Boseman’s Levee, an ambitious trumpet player who wishes to start his own band, having already sold some of his songs to Ma’s producer. While the veteran members of the band wish for Levee to fall in line behind Ma, he sees her as a stepping stone for his own musical legacy. Their ideas on religion, race relations and self-fulfillment all collide while they wait for Ma to make her grand return. Ma Rainey is a mythological figure who knows her worth in this world, a woman who has earned the right to her pride. Even after arriving late to the ire of the two producers, she makes several demands that halt the recording session even more. These hiccups include discrepancies over which version of the titular song will be recorded, Ma taking offense to not being provided a fresh Coca-Cola, and the room’s collective struggle of getting Ma’s stuttering nephew to record the introduction for a song. All of this is played with a lighthearted tone and easygoing pace, in typical Wilson fashion.
The main concern of the film is legacy, and the desire to overcome generational struggle through sheer force of will. Ma is already there, a well-respected blues singer who takes care of her girlfriend and relatives thanks to the success that she has garnered. Levee wants the same thing, dreaming of the day he gets his own band and starts performing on his own. The rest of the band is content to follow Ma’s trailblazing route, causing friction between their current place in life and Levee’s ambitions dismissing Ma’s success. Guitar player Cutler (Colman Domingo) in particular clashes with Levee, exchanging many monologues on Black existence and determination to move forward. Cutler has no problem with Levee’s aspirations, but holds disdain for the young man and his dismissing of the way things are in the present. He and the rest of the band have much more respect for Ma’s knowledge and their current jobs than Levee does, as the hothead frequently tries to undermine her efforts much to Ma’s chagrin. This creates legitimate conflict, but not one that distracts from the euphoric atmosphere the film brings whenever these characters are laughing together.
My issue comes when the film tries to get serious. Sometimes it works, with Levee and others delivering long monologues about their tragic pasts that have led to their present. But the tone of the film can sometimes feel uneven, with dialogue teetering between said monologues and quick and snarky ricochets between the band members. I haven’t talked much about the visual style on display, because while Wolfe is a masterclass at directing actors and staging a scene the film can never quite get past the feel of a play with a camera lazily placed in front of it. There’s very little to complement what the actors are doing, but it’s not like they’re in need of support.
The film’s final stretch will divide some. While the story does build up to a climactic moment, the way that the characters’ emotions are expressed physically can feel like a sucker punch. But the final scene is subtle and heartbreaking, the exact way to deliver a proper gut punch in an epilogue. Boseman and Davis are at their best here, and it displays Black joy and the legacy of suffering as things that are not mutually exclusive. The joy these characters feel comes from overcoming that pain, even if it is still present. As Levee puts it, this is one the people can move to.