"Egotistical Ambition Is Destructive"
What You Need To Know:
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is well produced. It’s based on the renowned play by acclaimed black playwright August Wilson. Chadwick Boseman gives a stellar performance as Levee. So does Viola Davis, who plays Ma Rainey. However, like many plays, the movie is too talky. Also, the ending is unsatisfying and somewhat depressing. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM has a mixed pagan worldview with humanist, moral and Christian elements. It also contains excessive foul language and some lewd content and violence. Media-wise viewers will find this combination and the unsatisfying ending sad and unacceptable.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM zooms in on the famous blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey as she records an album with a headstrong trumpet player named Levee. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is very well produced and acted, but it has an unsatisfying ending and an eclectic, mixed pagan worldview with humanist, moral and Christian elements, excessive and often gratuitous foul language, and some lewd content and violence.
The movie takes place in Chicago, Illinois. The famous blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, was one of the first blues singers to record. As such, she’s considered “the Mother of the Blues.” The movie opens in 1927 in Chicago, four years into her contract with Paramount Records, where Ma Rainey gears up to record her next studio album with the hit song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Black Bottom is a double entendre that also refers to the Black Bottom dance, a popular dance at the time.
On their way to the recording studio, Ma Rainey, her nephew and another vocalist get into a fender bender, which puts them behind schedule. The cop who reports to the scene is condescending, but Ma Rainey doesn’t have time to be wasted. She makes her stance known that it wasn’t her driver’s fault. Still, the cop gets paid off by Rainey’s manager, who’s anxious to record and get the ball rolling.
Meanwhile, Ma Rainey’s band rehearses for the recording session. One of the band members is a 32-year-old man named Levee. Levee is the obvious hothead of the seasoned performers. He constantly chatters about his talents and dreams for making it big one day with his own band. However, it’s no secret in the band that Levee is always the one causing a raucous, and Ma Rainey seems to know that too.
Levee’s mouth gets him into trouble with Ma Rainey when he says he doesn’t think her nephew is capable of recording the intro to the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” because of his stutter. Later, Levee and Ma Rainey’s background singer fornicate while they should be waiting for Ma Rainey to get what she needs before the next round of recording. To top it off, Levee thinks his trumpet arrangement is better than the original score by Ma Rainey that she wants to record.
Eventually that day, Levee’s tactless antics get him fired from the band. He says it doesn’t matter to him, but that obviously isn’t true. In fact, his anger about getting fired becomes a catalyst for violence and tragedy.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is very well produced. It’s based on the acclaimed 1984, Tony winning August Wilson play with the same title. The late Chadwick Boseman gives a stellar performance as Levee. So does the leading lady, Viola Davis, who plays Ma Rainey. Costume Designer Ann Roth also knocks the period costumes out of the park. That said, the movie is very dialogue heavy, not unlike Denzel Washington’s movie FENCES, which is based on the work of one of Wilson’s most popular plays. As a result, viewers need to really pay attention to grasp all the on-screen action, but that’s exactly what makes the movie unique. Even so, however, the ending is unsatisfying and somewhat depressing.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM has an eclectic, mixed worldview, with humanist, moral and Christian elements. The humanist elements center on Levee’s character, a young man who thinks he’s the only one capable of doing things in a manner that achieves success. Later, viewers learn that Levee’s jaded behavior is because he feels the Christian God has deserted him and other black men. Despite these humanist elements, the movie contains some positive Christian, moral content. For example, one character defends God, there’s a clear recognition of good and evil, and Ma Rainey takes good care of her nephew who has a stutter. In addition, the movie recognizes that older people have to teach younger people how to get on in the world. It also condemns racism, including the racism of the white record producers who have Ma Rainey under contract.
However, there’s one slightly homoerotic moment where Ma Rainey caresses a woman and kisses her on the check while singing (apparently, the real Ma Rainey was bisexual and occasionally referred to those proclivities in her songs). Sadly, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM also contains excessive foul language and some lewd content and violence. Media-wise viewers will find the movie’s foul language and depressing ending unacceptable.