Directed by George C. Wolfe, produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black, and Dany Wolf, and based on the Tony-nominated play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place during an evening in Chicago in 1927 and tells the story of how legendary Blues singer, Ma Rainey, and her band recorded the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”.
The film, which stars Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder, Fences) as “The Mother of the Blues”, Ma Rainey, also stars the late Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, 42) as trumpet player Levee Green in his final role prior to losing his battle with colon cancer earlier this year. The film also stars TV legend Glynn Turman (A Different World, The Defenders) as piano player and band member, Toledo.
While insight is given into how the song may have came into being, the film is more so a social commentary on Black life in America in 1927 with the song simply acting as the backdrop for the many social interactions throughout the film, including a series of extensive monologues and dialogues. As we see various social issues play out on screen, including race, fatherlessness, sex, women’s rights, faith, and fashion, viewers may alarmingly note that while in some ways the Black experience in America has improved over the past 100 years, in other ways some things have not changed at all. This plays out repeatedly throughout the film, from Levee’s use of fashion as a status symbol, to Black men taking out their frustrations with White America and the “system” on each other.
Although Boseman’s character of Levee is a fictional one, he not only exemplifies the average Black man in the 1920’s but he is a type of Everyman character for Black musicians at the time as the film depicts the appropriation and flat out stealing of Black music that continued throughout subsequent decades, in many genres, until this very day. We also see Rainey lamenting being seen as nothing but a commodity stating, “They don’t want me. They just want me for my voice”, something that may not be too far off from today’s music industry.
The film is also relevant in 2020 as it tackles the subject of sexual identity. With many of her lyrics alluding to her love for women, the film captures Rainey’s bisexuality through her interactions with her much younger lover Dussie Mae, played by Taylour Paige.
Although the backdrop of this film is about the recording of a 1920’s Blues song, it is about more than the Blues or even Ma Rainey (who was among the first Blues singers to record music) for that matter. In fact, Boseman and some of the supporting cast have just as much, if not more, screen time than Davis.
Again, the film is about Black America’s historical and continued struggle for inclusion and equality as they face a music industry and society built on inequality and exploitation.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottomis available on Netflix. Click the header image above to check out the trailer.