Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Dir: George C. Wolfe
Who was Ma Rainey?
She was a blues singer at the start of the 20th century, known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’. She’s a strong woman, not taking any messing from anyone, played wonderfully by Viola Davis whose magnetic presence really holds your attention on the title character almost every moment she’s on screen, though she has strong competition.
What exactly is her ‘Black Bottom’?
This was a song she’s known for, also according to the lyrics of the song it’s a dance, you can Google it if you’re into fancy footstepping.
Where is she?
The film is almost completely set in a recording studio in Chicago, where her manager and the studio owner are pressing hard for her to get a record made. However, there’s a racially tense undertone apparent immediately from the moment her band are shown to the grotty, run-down basement rehearsal space, leading to some interesting conflicts.
When is the film set?
Though the Tony-nominated play was written by August Wilson in the early 80s, it’s set in the 1920s, with the racial tensions and issues of the era very clear throughout, many of which are explicitly discussed. Ma Rainey stands out as almost an anomaly in the time, a fascinating character with her own agency and means, with the measure of those around her and how to protect her own interests.
How do things develop?
There are tensions between Ma Rainey, her band, trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) in particular, and management. This leads to delay after delay, with lots of conversations and heated discussion at each impasse, much of which touches on the racial tensions of the era and each character’s experiences. Having no foreknowledge of the play I didn’t know what to expect, I had no idea where it would lead or how deep and powerful things would be, and I really wasn’t prepared for the ending. Unlike other films this year, I was gripped throughout and quickly invested in the characters, though they aren’t completely likeable a lot of the time.
Why is this nominated for awards?
Denzel Washington has the rights to adapt August Wilson’s plays, so has been working his way through that catalogue. This latest adaptation comes 5 years after Viola Davis won her Oscar for her lead role in ‘Fences’, directed by Washington, who already has the next Wilson adaptation preparing to go into production, again partnered with Netflix in a few months. He’s determined to do justice to these plays he holds in high esteem, so the production design, costumes, and hair and make-up are given full attention and effort, there’s even a little half-hour documentary on Netflix about the making of the film, where costume designer Ann Roth talks about the immense work she put in. The dialogue-heavy nature of a play adapted to film really gives actors a chance to show off their skill, all the performances really shine, especially the two leads who are nominated for awards at every major ceremony. Though I think Viola Davis is superb, more attention is, rightly so, going to the late Chadwick Boseman, whose final performance as Levee is one of his best. It’s a role he fills with a mix of charm, pathos and raw emotion that leaves you in no doubt he was on course to win an Oscar, and this is a worthy performance to undoubtedly get that win.