2020 has been guilty of many things but perhaps the cruelest was taking Chadwick Boseman. The Black Panther himself passed away after a battle with colon cancer in August and the world mourned. While it always seems to go that way when a famous person dies, this one seemed particularly poignant.
But let’s not dwell. When Jill chose this little number for our homework I was in two minds. Was I ready to quit Christmas movies (hard yes)? Did I want something this heavy after four days of lounging about in a cheese board coma? Hard nope. But this comes in at just over ninety minutes and boasts the most delectable cast so it had to be done. Plus, it has banging reviews all round.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play
1920s Chicago. A sweltering hot day. A band of musicians arrive at a recording studio ahead of their leader, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (the one and only Viola Davis). Ever the trailblazer, Ma turns up fashionably late and in a blaze of glory, as her vehicle – driven my nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) – collides with another. Ma’s about to be hauled to the slammer for assaulting a white man when tensions are soothed with a bribe from her (white) manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who steps in in the nick of time.
Accompanying Ma is her lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), while Sylvester’s been promised his own role in the recording of the song, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And now she’s finally arrived the show can begin, right?
Well, let’s just say things are already tense between the boys in the band as newcomer Levee (Boseman) insists on his own way of playing. Seasoned musicians – Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag (Euphoria‘s Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts respectively) – have no time for his grand ideas, insisting they take their cue only from Ma. But Levee has a dream and he has the talent, not only for the trumpet but for writing his own music – and he wants to take what they know and refine it for a larger market. He’s also passed his music on to the studio’s owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who might be interested in working with him on his own stuff.
Over Ma’s dead body. As she prepares to drop the album, she reams Irvin out for going with Levee’s version of Black Bottom, reassuring him that she knows what she’s doing and is the fucking talent thankyouverymuch, so it’s her way or the high way. Irvin for the record agrees with Levee’s view of bringing Ma’s sound to the masses.
Meanwhile, Levee has his amorous eye on Dussie and isn’t put off by the fact she’s ma’s girl, quite the opposite. Dussie herself seems to have a (beautiful) head ripe for the turning. I wonder how that will turn out? How too, will Sylvester manage to introduce his aunt’s black bottom with such a pronounced stammer? The band aren’t convinced but Ma insists he’ll just keep going until he gets it right.
Will any of them get what they want? And for that matter, will Levee get what he needs – and if he does, at what cost?
Set almost entirely within the sweltering recording studio, this has a real sense of claustrophobia to it. Moods are frayed by impatience and the heat, while egos are out of control. Ma is a formidable character but a fair one and Viola Davis’ performance is wonderful. I love ma’s chemistry with Cutler and I love her costuming, make-up and the dialogue she’s given to spit out. More than anything I love to see a Black woman living life the way she wants (within reason) in 1920s America. It’s just a shame she has to earn respect and her place at the table with her talent.
However, despite the perfection of Davis’ titular role, this is Boseman’s film, and not just for the reasons outlined above, He’s so brilliant as Levee that I didn’t really pay anyone else mind when he was around. As the band hang around waiting for Ma to grace them with her presence, they banter with the best of them. Until Levee flips their joking on its head with a few truth bombs. His justification for smiling respectfully in the face of the white man is chilling and devastating.
Which brings us to the ending, which I could feel building but didn’t predict – it made me scream out loud. It’s so shocking that even the players around him don’t react. It’s violent and bloody – and almost too tragic to comprehend.
A brilliant movie.