Today I’m going to be reviewing Ma Rainey’s black bottom films based on plays don’t always get it right. But this film perfectly combines the best of both mediums so hold your bottle of coca-cola and hear me out.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Cast
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writers: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (screenplay by), August Wilson (based on the play written by)
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) Film Review [STORY]
Ma Rainey’s black bottom takes place in 1927 Chicago in a recording studio where mother of the blues Ma Rainey and her band have come to record their tracks. Tensions rise between ma and her manager and producer as well as, ambitious young trumpeter levy who is looking to be a star on his own.
One of the biggest selling points of this film is undeniably that it is Chadwick Boseman’s last film before he passed away. Considering the name of the film i thought it would predominantly be about the title character but Boseman’s. Levy is arguably more the main protagonist than ma. Both of their stories develop alongside each other but it is levy who leads the climax. Before that though there’s the build-up. This is done across a period of barely a day primarily within the walls of one recording studio and the street outside of it.
The setting isn’t big but it serves beautifully to build up the tension and I’ve always found it incredibly satisfying when a powerful story can be told in one location. It’s definitely in the details where this film and subsequently the play. It is based on shines in levy’s bright yellow shoes and the door that doesn’t want to open. Being in this one location doesn’t become boring, because of the costume design staging and the way they use the light to transform the space. For example Ma Rainey’s costume hair and makeup are all very emotive of her character. The filmmakers don’t try to flatter the portrayal of her but stick to the truth.
Having her sticky with sweat so we can really feel the heat of the room. When i refer to staging i’m talking about where each character is placed and moves through the scene. Interacting with props and other characters. There’s a beautiful shot of levy laying on the bench and the camera is placed where there would have been lockers that we had just seen in the reverse shot. It’s perfectly common to make space for a camera and cheat sets by moving things out the way. But what i particularly love about this shot is the framing of levy.
We see the other band members behind him with their instruments on various levels and there’s this wash of light from that one window in this uncomfortable basement. It really creates a striking image. When we are introduced to Ma Rainey. She comes off as being egotistical obnoxious and unwilling to compromise on anything. Interestingly levy could also be described this way at the start but the way each character comes off is different, because of the context of their behaviour.
Based on real life blue singer of the same name. Ma is a wealthy accomplished black woman who speaks as she pleases and seduces whoever she wants to. She wears an abundance of makeup and has a mouthful of gold teeth. This combination of things would have been unheard of in 1920s America.
I disliked her to begin with because in the context of today she is just being rude, but as the film progresses we get to see why she acts the way she does and looks the way she looks. All driven by the powerful line, all they want is my voice. Her whole life is a fight to remain in control of herself and her music. Within this recording session we get a glimpse into just one day of this fight.
One day where she is interrogated for arriving in an expensive car where her manager and producer decide for her what songs she must perform and criticize her for having too many demands. When she is the star she is the one paying every other person’s paycheck, then there’s levy. My first impression of him was that his ambition was justified because of his talent and his position. He is an artist at the start of his career and i imagine ma would have had a similar personality when she started out. Not yet totally hardened by the injustices of the industry and the racist culture surrounding them.
Indeed this film aptly captures the context of the period it is set in. The discrimination and the hopelessness of the people who have to face it. As levy’s story progresses we see the scars that make up the man behind this optimistic front. This wall of fake confidence that we learn is easily broken. Essentially by the end my initial judgment of these characters is proved wrong. The film manages to set these characters up and completely twist, what the audience thinks of them within 90 minutes and some films can’t manage to do this for one character let alone two given twice that amount of time.
One of the ways i think they achieve this is through the use of lengthy monologues, this is where the film becomes most reminiscent of its original medium. It is based on a play of the same name written by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson who also wrote the screenplay.
There are monologues that are taken verbatim from the play and transferred to the film and i think this is where people will be most put off because this is not how normal people converse. In a film an important monologue will likely get broken up by another character commenting on something or asking a question, whereas in plays there are often lengthy monologues that are delivered uninterrupted, sometimes directly to the audience breaking the fourth wall.
In ma rainy we get both styles. There’s the band members who spend a lot of their rehearsal time talking and sharing stories, and other band members will comment on these stories occasionally. Then there’s the uninterrupted monologues from levy and ma that reveal important backstory for their characters. One of the band member’s Toledo also gets an uninterrupted monologue as he plays the piano. It’s quite theatrical. In his one he explains a metaphor about being black in America.
It serves as the backstory to the whole film. It unites the stories of both ma and levy as well as the rest of the black characters. In each case the performances are truly breath taking. Viola Davis Chadwick Boseman and Glenn Turman don’t rush their lines. They revel in the telling of the story and know how to pace it best. What i loved is that the camera was at their service. It didn’t do anything to distract me but instead brought me closer to them. This is what is missing from most theatre.
The intimacy whilst here we get these close-ups where we can see each minute change in their facial expressions. Ma rainey’s black bottom is a small story that effectively captures the bigger picture. The filmmakers did well in creating a visual and emotional spectacle which at times may feel exaggerated like ma rainy herself. But retains the impact of the individual performances and the sombre experiences they portray.