Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Superb Film About Power, Art, Commerce, and Race

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There are no easy answers in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, no pat solutions, just people and perspectives. While there are a handful of showstopping monologues, none of them tell you what to think or feel. Instead, they’re setpiece moments in which the characters explain themselves, their stories, and how they see the world. The movie has plenty of speechifying, but no sermonizing; it’s more interested in exploring different worldviews, the way they clash and conflict sometimes come together, than in asserting its own.  

Based on the 1982 play by August Wilson, Rainey depicts a rocky recording session in 1920s Chicago, in which an all-black band, fronted by the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, meets, rehearses, and argues—amongst themselves and with Rainey’s white manager and producer. Some of the tensions are distinctly racial, as Rainey, the label’s top-selling artist, pushes back on the producer’s petty exploitations. But the movie is just as interested in the power struggles between Rainey and the band members, particularly Levee, the young hotshot trumpeter, played by Chadwick Boseman in his final role. 

This is an actorly film, with an outstanding ensemble cast, including Colman Domingo as the band leader, Michael Potts as the go-along bass player, and Jeremy Shamos as Rainey’s manager. 

But the movie belongs to Boseman and Davis, both of whom deliver titanic, screen-dominating performances. The conflict between them dominates the film and defines its thematic universe. Boseman’s Levee is a brash, arrogant upstart who wants to rearrange Rainey’s songs to be more upbeat and popular; it’s an electric, vividly alive performance, and a reminder of how much we lost with his death. Viola’s Rainey, meanwhile, is an elder who has fought mightily for her success, and knows how hard the road to change can be—and how fragile any earned success is. What’s at stake is not just a recording of a song, but the entire future of their lives and their art, which the movie treats as inseparable. Theirs is a battle of wills and ideologies, and the movie is deft enough not to take sides. 

Rainey is a movie about the complexities of power—cultural, economic, and interpersonal, and the ways that those different forms of power are often difficult to separate. But it’s also a movie about decency and authenticity, hope and cynicism, what it means to live a good life and earn your keep. 

Befitting a theatrical adaptation, Rainey is stagey and stylized, and as a result may not be for everyone. But it’s far more than just a static reproduction of a play; the golden-hued cinematography is amongst the year’s best, and director George C. Wolfe, who has extensive experience directing for the stage, moves the camera in ways that accentuate the conflict, pushing in for lengthy close-ups that would be impossible on stage. 

Rainey‘s release on Netflix, combined with the continued closure of many movie theaters due to pandemic lockdowns, means few will ever see it on the big screen. But in some ways the home viewing experience suits it, making this production even more intensely intimate by bringing it to viewer’s living rooms.

The movie’s balance of cinematic production with overt theatricality sits it neatly in the tradition of talky stage-to-screen adaptations like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and the 2016 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fences, which was adapted from another Wilson play. But in some ways the movie it reminded me of most was Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, another stagey, theatrical movie about inter-group power dynamics, moral worldviews, and what it means to be a righteous person in the world. Wilson’s original play, of course, predates Tarantino’s movie by a decade, so any direct line of influence would run from Wilson to Tarantino. As Samuel L. Jackson, who worked with both, noted all the way back in 1994, the two share a talky, declarative sensibility, and a sense that, no matter who you are or what you do, life is mostly a tricky balance of doing what it takes to get by in the world while also trying to be good in it. Rainey admirably resists suggesting that this is simple, and even seems to wonder if it’s possible at all. 

One thing, however, is clear: Rainey is a superb film, richly crafted and brimming with ideas, and it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. 


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