by Danielle Sanders, Interim Managing Editor, Chicago Defender
What happens when you take the iconic work of August Wilson, add Denzel Washington as the producer, George C. Wolfe as director, and mix in some of the best actors in the business? You receive the gift that is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of ten plays written by the iconic playwright August Wilson. August Wilson wrote ten plays, each covering a decade (1900-1990) until his death in 2005. In 2015, Denzel Washington announced he would produce all ten plays for the big screen. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second of those films released.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Rounding out this ensemble cast is Glenn Thurman (Toledo), Coleman Domingo (Cutler), and Michael Potts (Slow Drag). Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film is set in Chicago in the 1920s. Ma Rainey, played brilliantly by Viola Davis, heads from the south to Chicago to record new songs for white label owners. Ma Rainey is headstrong, feisty, and brash. She is also aware that she is being used by label owners who want to package her voice for mass consumption. Like so many jazz and blues artists, her sound is to be culturally appropriated for white audiences. While Ma Rainey existed and was known as the mother of the blues, the film is not autobiographical.
As a talented yet cocky horn player, Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, is explosive. Veteran band members Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag attempt to school the newcomer, Levee, on Ma Rainey’s ways. He’s young, ambitious, and a know-it-all. He desires to have his own band and wants the white record executives to buy his songs. He believes Ma Rainey’s songs are “old,” and he has what it takes to usher in a new sound. He’s a thorn in Ma Rainey’s side. She is already struggling to maintain power and control over her brand, and Levee often seeks to undermine it.
Tensions run high on a hot Chicago day in the recording studio. In rehearsal, band members come to grips with their complicated pasts and experiences of racism. Eventually, each character comes to a boiling point of reckoning. August Wilson’s incredible use of language comes alive in monologues performed by this talented and powerful cast. Veteran actors Glenn Thurman and Coleman Domingo also share incredible moments of acting brilliance in the film.
We will never know if Chadwick Boseman knew Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would be his last film. As Levee, Boseman will leave you speechless at his ability to pull everything inside of him and deliver such power. During the film, there is a moment that forced me to question whether art collided with Boseman’s impending reality. His talent is undeniable in the role of Levee.
Keeping the original play’s spirit, the film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, captures the essence of the power behind a theatrical performance. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman deliver Oscar-worthy performances. This film does more than highlight the incredible work of this all-star cast with veteran actors from the stage. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom again shows us the genius of playwright August Wilson and his ability to capture Black people’s language and stories with dignity and authenticity.
This film is highly recommended for audiences.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiers on Netflix, December 18, 2020.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.