Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Farewell To A Star

(L to R) Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo credit: David Lee/Netflix.

Chadwick Boseman graces the screen and bids fans farewell during an Oscar-worthy performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

It was never supposed to end this way.  Chadwick Boseman was our king.  He was never supposed to be taken away from us so soon.  I’ve watched this film twice–the first viewing came before the embargo lifted.  But it is a struggle to pen the words.  What do you say about an award-worthy performance when you’re watching a man knowing he is dying?  I didn’t have the words in November and I don’t even know if I have the words right now.  It’s a struggle to get them out of my mouth.  Okay, written on a keyboard if we’re being honest here.

Following a quick prologue in Georgia, Georgia native Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) makes her arrival to Chicago.  In real life, she is a Blues legend.  The mere fact that playwright August Wilson chooses to include her is an achievement in its own right.  Rainey was not afraid to touch on lesbian themes in her songs.  In any event, she is in Chicago for what is supposed to be a single-day recording session.  Rainey brings her girlfriend Dussie May (Taylour Paige), nephew Sylvester, and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), trombonist Cutler (Colmon Domingo), and trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman).  The major thing to know about Ma Rainey is that she takes rules from only one person: herself.  Will she play well with others who challenge her?  You’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Levee has a potential future ahead of him but he’s at odds with the Blues legend.  Chicago is where Levee decides to make a stand.  This is where we really get an award-worthy performance out of Boseman.  Honestly, the late actor is long overdue for an Oscar win.  The beauty in watching this film really comes through in the performances.  Sure, it does help to know something about the moment in history.  Ma Rainey is on the way out at this point in her career.

The film is based on August Wilson’s play of the same name.  Unlike the rest of his plays, this one is not set in Pittsburgh.  And again, the inclusion of Rainey also makes it his first play with an LGBTQ character.  Similarly, Rainey one of the few real-life people to make an appearance in any play written by Wilson.

George C. Wolfe’s direction and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay never opens up the play too much and more or less sticks with the theatrical feeling.  But all of this said, the film brings to the screen what life was like in the late 1920s.  To set the mood up really quick, 100,000 Black Americans moved from Mississippi to Chicago during the Great Migration over the first twenty years of the 20th century.  By 1927, it had been a few years since a horrible attack in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood left many people dead, injured, and homeless.  I say this so that you have an idea of the Chicago environment when August Wilson’s took place.  There remains so much more work left to be done.

No matter how you feel about the Blues, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is worth it alone for Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.  And yes, it still hurts to write “the late.”  It always will.

DIRECTOR:  George C. Wolfe
SCREENWRITER:  Ruben Santiago-Hudson
CAST:  Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto

Netflix will release Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on December 18, 2020. Grade: 4.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.