Film & Theater The Arts

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

CJ Quartlbaum

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set to release on Netflix on December 18th. It has a star-studded cast featuring Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey, Chadwick Boseman, and Glynn Turman (The Wire, A Different World ), to name a few. Adapted from August Wilson’s 1982 stage play, Ma Rainey tells the fictionalized story of recording artist Ma Rainey and her band as they record an album in Chicago. Set in the 1920s, the subjects of race, prejudice, and exploitation sit at the story’s forefront. The movie speaks to the Black condition in America both then and now.  

In one scene, Ma asserts her power over the record company by holding up the recording session until she can get the ice-cold Coke she longs for. Ma explains that she understands the record company just wants to use her, but she will not allow herself to be walked over. She knows that her primary value to them is her ability to make hits and that the moment she is no longer useful, they’ll get rid of her. In this scene, Ma displays strength in the face of oppression and gives viewers a glimpse of the strength that Black women must embody in every circumstance. Viola Davis inhabits this role; it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Ma. 

Ma Rainey’s rich script features several long, gut-wrenching monologues, each one more painful and piercing than the last. One such monologue is given by Toledo (Turman), who describes African Americans as being leftovers from the African stew. “What I think August Wilson wanted people to take away from that [monologue] is to know where you stand. If you know where you stand, then you know what you got to do to improve your situation,” says Turman. 

The film also offers commentary on cultural appropriation and the erasure of Black artists from Black art forms. It raises the question of how Black people can reclaim the aspects of culture that whiteness has stolen from us. “You have to believe you can do it. Part of the trauma is internalizing and being told you’re not capable of doing. [And being told that] you don’t have the intellect or capability, but that is false, and you have to begin to believe that [it is false],” says Coleman Domingo, who plays Cutter in the film. “We must first have a knowledge of who we are. We’ve been taught to believe in things outside of ourselves [such as] Gucci [and] Nike…but we have to do the work and know who we are and not attach ourselves to that stuff,” adds Michael Potts (Drag). 

Ma Rainey also features the final film performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who tragically passed away this summer. Viewers might find themselves paying extra attention since it is his final role. The extra attention, however, is warranted. Boseman plays Levee, a young trumpet player eager to make his mark on the music industry. Levee advocates for a new way of doing things, standing in stark opposition to his bandmates and Ma. Boseman’s show-stealing performance is a sad reminder that we lost, too soon, a man who was on the path to becoming a legend. 

Although Ma Rainey is a film, its use of monologue and setting make it obvious that the film was adapted from a stage play. Much of the action in Ma Rainey takes place in a few small rooms. This, combined with the film’s long, emotional monologues, creates a palpable dramatic tension that builds with each scene. Although Ma Rainey looks and sounds like a film adaptation, it still feels like a movie. Ma Rainey can easily be compared to Fences, another August Wilson play (also starring Viola Davis) adapted for film. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an enduring piece that is as relevant today as it was when the play premiered in 1984. It shows how little has changed from Ma Rainey’s time to August Wilson’s time and from August Wilson’s time until now. Maybe one day, the stories of past Black oppression will be nothing more than stories of the past. Until that day, we must continue to look to ancestors like Ma Rainey and August Wilson to show us how to keep fighting. 

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