Based on the 1982 play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, director George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) tells the story of one long recording session in which legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), her band, and everyone in between does a little more than just play some music.
Black Bottom unfolds as a series of stories told around the more linear narrative of the 1920s recording session. As circumstances arise which stop the session for one reason or another, band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) each tell tales which relay life lessons or personal struggles.
As I mentioned before, the screenplay for Black Bottom (written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) was adapted from the play of the same name, and–unfortunately–it sometimes feels too much like a play. These stories, though they reveal much about the characters who tell them, at times appear like stage monologues, especially with the way that they all take place in the same practice room. On the other hand, the recording session scenes felt very cinematic, so cutting back and forth between the two modes was slightly jarring for me as a viewer.
I think that when one adapts something–whether it be a novel, play, or whatever–for the screen, there should be an obvious filmic quality to the material, otherwise it should be left in whichever medium it was originally produced. While both have their merits, film is not simply recorded theater and should not be treated as such; turning the story into a film should add something to it, not simply recreate it, otherwise one may as well just watch a taped performance of the play.
However, despite the slight problems I have with the way they were filmed, I thoroughly enjoyed the content of the narratives told by the band members and even Ma Rainey herself; they are able to create a certain intimacy between the characters and the audience that would otherwise not come through in the recording session alone.
These accounts are the characters, incorporating issues of racism, differing views on religion, misogyny, queerness, and even artistry and how everything intersects and influences each other. These stories, while they sometimes divide the characters, ultimately show that they have more in common than they think. It’s a complicated “stew,” as Toledo calls it, but there’s no other way to portray such a layered experience as the black person’s in America.
I’ll be honest–I didn’t know who Ma Rainey was before I watched this film (yet another purposeful oversight of the American school system, I’m sure), but I wish I did. Her fiery, no-nonsense personality is captured perfectly by Viola Davis. She is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with in this film.
Chadwick Boseman also gives a flawless performance as Levee, the hot-headed young trumpeter whose cynical nature is always one step ahead of his better judgement. What he was able to give us in this final performance in spite of everything he was going through is a true testament to his strength and character.
Amazing performances aside, I think the thing I love the most about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the way that it heralds the idea that we are stronger as a collective; when we come together, we are able to create something beautiful, like Ma Rainey’s records, and when we fight amongst ourselves, only lasting damage is done.
Sometimes, like the recording session, life is interrupted by things we can’t control. Like Levee, we sometimes try to force open doors to things that aren’t ready for us yet. But, we have to keep pushing. We need to tell more black stories written and directed by black people. We need more of the coming together to give voice to those who have been silenced for too long. Because if we don’t, who will?
Filmnetic Grade: A-
What did you think of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)? Give your opinions in the comments below! Be honest, or Ma’ll know.
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