Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Levee's Going to Break

Films: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen

Sometimes you can tell that a movie isn’t merely based on a play but hasn’t done a great deal to separate itself from its staged roots. That was definitely the case with Fences from a couple of years ago; I knew that was a stage play within a few minutes despite not knowing it was a play. I experienced the same thing with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And, with a little digging, it makes sense. Denzel Washington is the producer of this film, and it’s the second film he’s worked on from playwright August Wilson; Washington’s goal is to produce all ten of his Century Cycle. In that respect, the two movies are closely related.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in Chicago on a single day in July of 1927. Blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, who is almost completely unrecognizable) has been contracted to make a couple of records for a producer in Chicago by her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). Her main trio of players, trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) arrive on time. Hot shot trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final role) shows up shortly thereafter sporting a new pair of very expensive shoes. Levee isn’t in Ma Rainey’s group for the long haul. He has been promised by studio executive Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) that he can record some of his own music in the near future.

Before Ma Rainey herself shows up, the four musicians bicker back and forth, mostly about Levee’s version of the song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Levee, with Irvin’s backing, has written a new version of the song, and that’s the one their going to use. The other musicians, especially Cutler, object and just want to rehearse to get ready for the recording. Levee, on the other hand, feels that rehearsal is unnecessary.

Eventually, Ma shows up, and we learn a great deal about exactly what makes her who she is. Ma Rainey doesn’t take any grief from anyone. She demands respect and demands what she has been promised. Recording shuts down immediately when she realizes that she doesn’t have the promised bottles of Coke in the studio. She has shown up with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). She demands that Sylvester do an intro on Black Bottom despite his severe stutter. But while Ma makes demands, most of the problems come from Levee, who tries to run off with Dussie Mae, irritates everyone around him, and causes additional problems throughout the recording.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in many respects a battle between the two main characters of Ma Rainey and Levee Green. Ma is everything that Levee wants to be. She has power. When she makes demands, she gets her way because she has the talent and the pull to get what she wants. Everything shuts down over a couple of nickel bottles of Coke. When there is a minor accident on her arrival at the studio, it is Irvin who is forced to deal with cleaning things up. Originally told that Sylvester’s money will have to come from her cut, she demands that he get paid his own money. In all cases, she gets exactly what she wants—she has power over the white producer and her white agent because she is the talent and they can’t do things without her.

On the other hand, Levee has none of this power. He thinks he should have that power and he makes the same kinds of demands, but he gets nothing for it. All of his attempts to demand the same level and type of respect are immediately and forcefully rebuffed, often in demeaning ways. Throughout the film, that which Ma is able to do almost on a whim and by force of will Levee is unable to do at all, and throughout the film, Levee’s frustration and anger build until the third and final act.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the first movie since Walk the Line nominated for the two top acting awards without being nominated for Best Picture. I have to say that I think this was the right choice. This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t compelling—it is. It doesn’t mean that the film isn’t very good—it is. But it’s very much a filmed stage play. Oh, there are some changes in location and a few scenes added to make it feel more movie-like, but despite this, it’s very much a staged drama, and it feels like it almost (not quite, but almost) could have been filmed in real time on a soundstage. “Best Picture” should feel like more than that.

Viola Davis is tremendous, of course. When she is on the screen, she’s exactly where we are looking despite not looking anything like Viola Davis. This does feel like category fraud, though—Davis is on screen for less than a third of the film’s running time despite being the title character. She may well belong more in the Supporting category. I could see a nomination for Supporting Actor for Colman Domingo as well, as the calm voice of reason to Levee’s mounting frustration.

But this is Chadwick Boseman’s film. I like Boseman, and while I haven’t seen everything he’s done, I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen. He gets bonus points for playing who has been my favorite Avenger since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but his skill playing an African superhero was not preparation for what he does as Levee Green. This is as good as he’s been on screen that I’ve seen. It can very much feel like his nomination was performative; he was a popular actor who died tragically young from an ailment no one knew he had. But he earned it, and if Boseman were still alive, we’d still be talking about his nomination.

Why to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: You owe it to Chadwick Boseman.
Why not to watch: Even with changes in location, this is very clearly a filmed play.


  1. I am hoping to see this in November as I'm planning to do a lot of horror for the next month as I have a lot of films from Netflix from the last year to catch up on now that I have more access to streaming services as long as I can get my internet to improve.

    1. It's very clearly a filmed drama, but it's a pretty good drama.