Written by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts
Avenues for success for Black folks have come with such limitations throughout this country’s harmful history. Even with all of the talent in the world, getting their just dues came with fighting for every possible inch. A sentiment shown in two halves of an unfortunate whole in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A stunning showcase of talent with a harrowing message at the center of it all.
Set to record the tracks of Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) for an album, her band members arrive at the studio and rehearse prior to the arrival of the star. In those conversations Levee (Chadwick Boseman), their horn player, indicates he may start his own band as he writes songs on his own. When Ma Rainey arrives, they begin the recording session but with many stumbles along the way.
As the end credits of this film roll, the one thing on your mind will be Chadwick Boseman, I can guarantee it. With his tragic passing earlier in the year, much attention has been raised for this being his final performance. A man of immense talent that had so much left to achieve and with this performance, he leaves everyone with an immense gift. It takes a herculean effort to co-star a film with Viola Davis and outshine her, but he definitively pulls it off in style.
The performances on display will receive plenty of the attention for this feature, and rightfully so, but it really digs into the idea of these Black artists utilizing the power they have accrued in the limited time it can be used. This gets seen mostly through Ma Rainey where she has strong particulars about how she wants things done and how she’s willing to walk away whenever her demands do not get met. With the band being all-Black and the producers and managers being white, a power dynamic gets established very quickly by showing Ma Rainey has the leverage. In this era especially, not many instances occurred where a Black woman would be able to state all of her demands and have the other men scurry to complete them. Some of her requests and demands could be seen as diva-like until the film poignantly reminds the audience of the limited time Ma Rainey has where she can make these demands and suddenly it becomes crystal clear. The perspective gets provided and changes the way this character and everything in the story gets perceived in a brilliant manner.
In different stages of their lives, Ma Rainey and Levee display the paths of Black artists of this time and just how quickly everything they build or want to can be taken away from them without a moment’s thought. While these two characters do not share much time alongside each other on-screen, their presence remains strident throughout because of the energy they emanate and as soon as they speak, they create a vacuum around them where nothing else matters.
Chadwick Boseman gives the performance of a lifetime and does so in his final film role. The world may never know if he with his condition that this would be his final role but he made sure to give a reminder of his sensational talent. With two strong monologues and mastery of displaying the feel of this era, he perfectly encapsulates the anger and confidence of Levee. A man who knows the level of talent he provides and remains unafraid to tell anyone about it. As the young man playing alongside older men, he has a level of naivete to his approach in life that makes the others laugh at him, but his ambitiousness remains admirable. The scenes in the rehearsal room display wonderful acting by the quartet of men as they appreciate and also talk trash to each other. They have all walked different paths of life, which can be shown in the way they react to the outlandish things said by the other men. The energy in the room contains so much electricity as it matches the ambition and life experience in a way to paint the picture of what it means to be a Black musician of this era.
With all of the talking, with this being adapted from a play, the heat setting gets turned up to further raise the stakes and the emotions ready to combust. All of the characters have sweat off their foreheads to show how the elevated temperature will not assist in calming down the disagreements occurring. Continually raising the stakes, even with the visual cues, the uneasiness and the eggshells some of the characters have to walk on all culminates into the perfect storm for honesty to be shared and nothing being held back.
Mostly serving as a showcase for its wonderful actors but a strong message to boot as well, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brings a level of poignancy to make each conversation vital and every word having immense weight. Chadwick Boseman’s performance sits right in the middle of it all and will ultimately be the defining aspect of this story, as it demonstrates a man with so much talent, and his final role shows what made him so special.