I honestly have never even heard of Ma Rainey or Black Bottom until this movie, so I have no way of knowing what their legacy on music was like, or even how good their music was. But I can certainly say that I’ve gained an appreciation lately for jazz. While it’s different from the blues music that this band played, it’s still meant in this context to be appreciated as a piece of Black culture brought to America, which really does help you enjoy it all the more. So how does that translate into the quality of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom the motion picture? Well, it’s certainly solid and catchy as good blues music should be, even if it jumps too many beats to pick up a faster tempo.
It all starts with a forest at night, where there’s chasing and dogs barking. It puts you in the whole “fleeing from slavery” mindset that serves the backdrop of the events. Yet it’s quickly revealed that these runners are actually racing to see a live Ma Rainey performance, performed to great success by Viola Davis. Her commanding screen presence throughout the rest of the film is enough to help distract from the fake and artificial sets that all look obviously built inside a studio. Even when the whole music setting is mostly optimistic, there’s still some darkness looming about.
For instance, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey can convey sass with only a glare, and Chadwick Boseman can sustain a long tearful monologue in a brick room. The use of bricks makes these band sessions feel more like a prison, especially with all the cigarette smoke in the air, making his monologue all the more powerful. You can always tell what each character is thinking just by looking into their eyes, particularly in one scene where there’s sex on the piano. Yes, each performance is well paced as they all act under a ceiling fan with only two wings, like it’s looking down on Chadwick despite his great singing voice and the band’s jazzy “good time” music that puts you right into the era. It’s all in the great dialogue that builds up to such moments- dialogue that is designed around inner monologues.
Though the direction is not so good when it comes to the outer monologues, as the camera swings around the characters way too much while they smoke their lungs out; none of it helps to make any of them sympathetic. It’s stuff like that where you can tell that this was originally a play, because there isn’t much creativity in the lighting. That goes to the editing as well—the pacing is too quick with cuts that last less than half a second- there’s no sense of fluidity between the old photographs included of the Black people at the time and place, in fact, it takes you out of it.
It’s not just the cinematic tools though that don’t always work; there is at one point a steady buildup to lesbian tension between Ma and one of her female singers, but there’s no payoff to it later. They could have just left out the hints to Ma’s bisexuality and nothing in the story would have been affected. That’s not the only problematic thing that could be offensive to some viewers however, those who knew the band well would get a seizure from watching this, as pretty much none of the band members depicted here were real people.
Rather, this is all meant to be an actor’s showcase, and boy does it deliver. Each actor conveys a craving to try and control each other, particularly Chadwick, who sweats as hard as Ma does, both just glistening under the heat of tungsten. Ma’s nephew is also present as he stutters through a recorded introduction for Ma Rainey; believe me, it actually starts to get pretty funny when there’s multiple takes and coca cola. (But don’t get the wrong idea, you’re made to laugh at all the characters in the scene except the stuttering boy, so this shouldn’t come off as politically incorrect.)
So will this movie compel you to go out and buy an album of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Will her tunes become among the most played of all the songs on your playlist? Probably not. For me at least, this was one of those movies that was worth seeing just so I could say I’ve seen it. If anything, I’d recommend seeing it for the fact that it’s Chadwick Boseman’s last performance. He really shouldn’t be remembered for playing that overrated superhero, this role of his proves he deserves better than that: he can sing dang well, he can act dang well, he can dance dang well in bright yellow shoes, watching him here makes you see why it really is such a tragedy we lost such a talented human being just as the world started to know about his chops. It certainly made watching this movie worth it for me, odds are it will be worth it in some other way for you too.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!