Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

William T. Robinson, Jr.

By now there is much talk about playwright August Wilson’s dramatic film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The Netflix film adaptation  of the play directed by George C. Wolf and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson leaves many of its viewers intrigued and  emotionally charged, definitely wanting to know  more about the life of Ma Rainey, known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and the first professional blues vocalist.

While some claimed the movie left them  puzzled and confused, there should be no dispute about the profound material presented and the exceptional performances of the actors, including: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Coleman Domingo and Michael Potts. But make no mistake, it was the explosive performances by Davis as Ma Rainey and Boseman as a trumpeter in the band that took the movie to another level.

The movie takes place in the late 1920s, and subtly reflects on the racial and horrific discrimination and injustice systemically  operating in this country at the time.  We are shown a hostile environment negatively impacting the psyche of the Black characters  portrayed in the movie. It is not a documentary but an anecdote of one day in the life of Ma Rainey when she was doing a recording in a Chicago studio.

Viewers are transformed to a historical  time  of flagrant segregation and horrific violence directed against Blacks by racists supported by an untamed White supremacy-orientated  society.  While some viewers may be upset with the constant use of the ’N’ word, its usage makes the film more historically accurate. Like it or not, Blacks were not called African Americans, Negroes, Colored or Black during that period of time. And the characters affectionately used the word among themselves in idle conversation.

Some argue the movie was too short and  only vaguely touched on who Gertrude Pridgett (Ma Rainey) was as a legend. But the portrayal of the key characters by dynamic and  outstanding actors makes up for its brevity. The major standout performances in the movie  include: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman and Glynn Turman. The major characters were undeniably believable, conveying emotions of  self-preservation, pain, hurt, pride and a cry for dignity.

The audience are given a look into the souls of Ma Rainey and Levee, the trumpeter, as well as vestiges of experiences of the other Black  characters as they deal with the reality they were handed. For example: acting dumb, naive and inferior to give their White counterparts, giving them a false sense of superiority.

Emphasis was placed on having the viewers understand the dignity and respect Ma Rainey sought as a human being, especially seeking artistic control of her works despite the commercial exploitation by her manager and producer. She made no apology for displaying her sexuality (as a bisexual woman) at a time when she was already being traumatized and dehumanized for being Black. She was known to be feisty and fiery, demanding respect in her dealings because she knew her own worth and talent.

The band members rehearsing for Ma Rainey  share  humorous  banter. They build a camaraderie, sharing their own life stories, experiences—often with exaggerations to  promote laughter. During these stories, they share traumatizing events serving to congeal their bond. But it is Levee, the young, likable and ambitious trumpeter who shares the most tragic, dramatic life events explaining his  selfish façade at self-preservation. You can see  Levee finally redirecting his hurt and anger  toward someone who meant him no harm. But we feel his remorse as he describes how he felt when he was used and  exploited  by  those who once encouraged him to dream he was on his way to having his own band.

It is the profound and sententious dialogue (especially in the stories shared) that makes the  movie so noteworthy. The movie is full of substance, provoking deep thought and discussion. It helps one understand the legacy of people of color as they built coping defenses to deal with a history of racial discrimination contributing to the murder and annihilation of many of their prominent communities.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a must see. It is entertaining, informative, and provoking for conscious people. The authenticity of the set, especially the clothes, help make an indelible impact.

However, remember it is a based on one day in the life of Ma Rainey and is not a documentary.