Sunday, December 20, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Movie Review

The Movie: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Director: George C. Wolfe

The Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts

The Story: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues".

The Review:
Let me just get this out of the way right off the bat. This is the final performance from Mr. Chadwick Boseman before he passed away this year of 2020 from colon cancer. Knowing this, it does add a lot of sentimentality to what is already an emotionally charged and powerful performance as Levee, a talented yet troubled blues musician, from one of the most talented actors of this era. This movie shines the brightest of lights on the abundance of talent and charisma and life that Mr. Boseman carried with him throughout his career and every bit of it is on full display.

Not only do we have that performance, but we also get some amazing work from Viola Davis who has also proven herself to be one the premiere talents currently working today. Playing the title role of Ma Rainey, this is easily one of the most colorful characters Ms. Davis has ever taken on and she absolutely nails every moment she has on screen. Based off of the real life and larger than life blues legend, I feel like she was able to embody every bit of the entertainer's attitude and demanding nature that made her such a legendary figure to begin with.

The movie is based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play of the same name and highlights the divide between black artists and the businessmen they are forced to work with to get their music out to the world. Davis' Ma Rainey knows the power she has and uses every ounce of it to her advantage while Boseman's Levee tries to make the same inroads without nearly as much success. We all know the countless examples of record labels taking music from black musicians and singers and repackaging it for a white audience that will be more likely to spend their money on record albums.

The racial divide and the resulting inequity have always been a part of America and it continues to this day with the same tactics being used over and over again. I read an interview with director George C. Wolfe and a particular quote really stuck with me.

"Is America ever going to deliver on its possibility when it is forever haunted by its un-owned sins of the past?"

Of course the answer is no because if we don't acknowledge the roots of racism in America, it will never be properly addressed and will continue to be an issue until the end of time. Hopefully, what we have been through in 2020 as well as more works of art like this movie will help to shift that tide and build momentum towards America looking back at its roots and saying yes, we started this whole thing with some horribly wrong tactics and beliefs in place and it's time to make amends and it's time to bring about true equity and true equality to every single person.

All that being said, and it is all important stuff to say, the movie is very entertaining both as a work of art and as a social commentary with many thanks going to the entire cast from top to bottom. We will remember this performance from Chadwick Boseman as a bold faced and underlined exclamation point to a career that was stopped way too short. Denzel Washington is one of the producers of the movie and I could feel the same fire and brimstone he has been known to unleash in all of this movie's performances but mostly from Boseman as I feel like he was channeling the man himself at the most pivotal moments of the film.

The Verdict:
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a blues fueled powder keg of emotion and a history lesson on one of American black music's most iconic performers. Sadly it is also the final performance from one of today's most iconic performers as well. RIP Mr. Chadwick Boseman.

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