Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film) on the surface, is about a band trying to record their music on a sultry Chicago afternoon. But if you watch it closely enough it addresses deep-rooted issues of the African American society. Though the film is set in 1927, it feels contemporary enough in the current political and social scenario.
The film has been directed by George. C Wolfe and the screenplay has been written by Ruben Santiago Hudson. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film) is based on a play by August Wilson of the same name. The intricate and detailed costume design has been done by Ann Roth.
During the great migration, a promise was made that was never ever fulfilled. People from the coloured community travelled up north seeking a better quality of life. But instead, they had to face hostilities to the level that they had to negotiate their own destiny.
Ma Rainey is a sensation down south. Her music is symbolic to the culture she proudly belongs to and fiercely endorses. With the great migration, she also has to ride the tide and let the big recording labels get profit out of her music. The trumpeter of her band is an ambitious and impatient young man named Levee (Late Chadwick Boseman). Levee saw his coming to Chicago as a fortuity waiting to happen. He wants to make music that the current generation demands but it isn’t possible until he plays in Ma Rainey’s band. Tempers rise when the white owner of the record label, Mel Sturdyvant doesn’t get his own way. He is somewhere irritated to be dictated by a coloured artist and Irvin the band Manager meddles in between the two forces ready to rip each other apart.
The strained relationship of Ma Rainey and Levee makes the atmosphere even more stifling. The enterprising trumpeter just isn’t ready to not put his own flavour into Ma Rainey’s music, for which she is extremely rigid. She wants it her way and not ready to give any kind of creative liberty to anyone. On the other hand, Levee is being embrangled by the studio owner, who promises him to help him create his own music.
Once again naivety fused with impatience falls a step short and that makes all the difference.
It is in the conversations of the band where the heart of the narrative lies. It was the era of troubled and irrational ideologies. Not that we don’t find traces of it now but the problem is when you seek reasons to justify a plague and over everything believe one’s ignorance to be the highest attainable knowledge.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film) through a very cautiously webbed screenplay opens up its tentacles slowly, grasping your attention and snaring your attention to a bigger picture at play. The band members i.e Toledo, Cuttler, Slow drag and Levee have their own stories, struggles and characteristics to justify their end of affairs. Toledo is the philosophical one. He evaluates the history and tries to understand the effect it would have on the future. Will it be better or worse?
“What the coloured man gonna do with himself? That’s what we are waiting to find out”
Levee has conflicted ideologies. He believes his time has come. He believes he can fly. He humiliates the wisdom that comes from experience.
But the crux is that everyone has a source from where their core originates. The temper, the actions, the personalities, the ideologies, everything stems from those few events or moments that shape how things are going to be looked at and perceived in the future. The characters of Ma Rainey’s black bottom owe their convoluted personalities to such occurrences and past tremors. The reasoning behind the action made sense even if they left indelible scars.
Blues was not just a style or genre of music. Blues stood for defiance. It was symbolic of the struggle of an African American life. As Ma Rainey says about the blues
“You don’t sing to feel better, you sing because that is a way of understanding life”
It was an era where music was bought from the black community at meagre deals and was sold at a much higher price obviously without giving the credit to it’s creator. Disparities and discrimination like these existed in every walk of life.
History was always made palatable rather than real. It was always written from the perspective of the victors. The oppressed who never got an opportunity to talk about their interpretations were provided with a platform through Music. It was their way of collecting the memories which would otherwise go undocumented.
Lured by Vanity
It becomes very difficult for an actor to shed off his or her vanity. They become addicted to it, can’t part ways with it and eventually cease to be truthful to their art. It’s a prominent phenomenon of any industry. Some are ignorant enough to even recognize this problem and some blatantly overlook it.
But the performances of this film will leave you in complete awe of the details and depth they have dwelled into.
Viola Davis approaches her character with ferocity. She understands the insecurities of Ma Rainey. She carries a brusque demeanour because she knows her talent and she knows it’s worth. She understands that the society she is living in is nothing less than a predator. She demands respect because in that era it could only be coerced. She owns her destiny down south but here in the north, she has to make negotiations. Viola Davis is extravagant and flourishes elegantly through the virtual time and space. Her costume done by Ann Roth adds to the flavour and makes every bit of her presence even more savoury.
Chadwick Boseman just immerses himself in the character of Levee. The performance you see on the screen is an end result of immense detailing and sheer brilliant execution. It is not every day we see a mainstream actor leave his vanity and vouch for something that might not be linear to the majoritarian taste. He waltzes through the scenes in an attempt to open that door which leads nowhere.
It was an absolute joy to watch Chadwick Boseman, one last time. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film) is befitting the legacy of this generous actor. As Denzel Washington said,
“We might have lost him but we will always have him on Films.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a passionate ride that transforms itself into one of the most astounding creations of the recent times.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (film) is streaming on Netflix.
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