It’s not really about a bottom
No, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is the name of a song recorded by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, the so-called ‘Mother Of The Blues’, one of the first black women ever to commit her voice to recordings. We find her, mid-career and at the height of her powers, keeping her all-male band and white, male record producer and manager waiting for a 1927 recording session in Chicago, a period of time in which differences between the players over their stake in Ma’s talent come to a head.
Viola Davis, generally, is brilliant
This isn’t the first time Ma Rainey has been portrayed on the screen – Precious actor Mo’Nique portrayed her in the 2015 Bessie Smith biopic Bessie – but Viola Davis makes the role her own, playing the fearless – and fearsome – Rainey like a big cat on the prowl. Ma Rainey is a complex, layered character, oozing power and charisma but rightly wary too, and not inclined to people-please. Davis inhabits the part while keeping that unknowable, prickly energy peaking throughout.
You have to see Chadwick Boseman’s swansong performance
It’s hard to separate Boseman’s performance as Levee, a brilliant, bull-headed and bruised trumpeter who rubs up against Ma Rainey and her band, from what we now know about his personal struggle with cancer at the time. But then you remember: the man was brilliant in everything he did. Discussing the film at a recent online premiere, Viola Davis spoke of her experience working with the Black Panther star in what would be his final role. “This is a man who was an artist,” she said. “An artist meaning you have to let go of your ego, your vanity… you have to tap into a wellspring of pain, trauma, joy, all of that, and use that as fuel with your work – and that’s all you have, in the end, is your integrity.”
It’s a period piece that feels modern
The prevailing winds of racial prejudice, sexism, cultural appropriation, social immobility, police corruption are all too familiar in 2020, just as they were – albeit in more extreme terms – in Ma Rainey’s 1927. More encouraging is seeing Ma Rainey openly living as a bisexual woman, married to ‘Pa’ Rainey but enjoying affairs with women.
The music is fantastic
Much of the film revolves around discussing the treatment of Ma Rainey’s next recording, which is being tussled over by her manager, her producer and her band – all of which should be, and is, immaterial when dealing with a powerful entity like Ma. When we finally get to hear the song, it’s worth every second of anticipation.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix on December 18