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Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

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Movie Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ shines the limelight on Black art

George C. Wolfe’s film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is based on the 1982 play by August Wilson that highlights the importance of the blues in African American culture and American history.

In this tense film, Ma Rainey, the fierce and legendary blues singer played by Viola Davis, is troubled by Levee, one of Ma Rainey’s band members played by Chadwick Boseman.

Ma Rainey, also known as the famous “Mother of Blues”, wanted to keep the original mellow tune of her song, “Black Bottom,” during a recording in a studio in Chicago but tensions began to rise when Levee persisted on a different rhythmic feel of swing that he thought could grab more people’s attention.

A tense disagreement between Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and the producer occurs in a studio in Chicago in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
A tense disagreement between Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and the producer occurs in a studio in Chicago in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo credit: Netflix

The two had contrasting views of their version of the blues but the choice ultimately came down to Rainey, considering that she took ownership of the song.

However, the biggest takeaway from the film was not the discourse between Levee and Ma Rainey. It was the discrimination that centered around Levee’s story, which emphasized the micro-aggressions and inequality that African Americans faced in the ’20s.

After learning of Levee’s traumatic experience about what the “white men” did to him and his family, he expressed to his fellow band members that he knew how to play the white people’s system. But the real irony was that he did not even have the same chance in the system to begin with.

When things did not go his way, Levee offered his compositions to the studio producer Mel Sturdyvant, played by Jonathan Coyne, who later rejected Levee’s proposal to record his own music despite the fact that he said he would allow Levee if he wrote the songs.

It was much more difficult for Levee to start up his own band no matter how diligent and ambitious he had been because of people like Sturdyvant, who revealed himself as a racist producer in the end.

Chadwick Boseman playing as Levee, and Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo playing as the other band members, Toledo, Slow Drag and Cutler in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Chadwick Boseman playing as Levee, and Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo playing as the other band members, Toledo, Slow Drag and Cutler in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo credit: Netflix

This musical drama conveyed only some of the racial discrimination against Black people at the time but it also presented the origin and the true meaning of the blues to African Americans.

“White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking,” Rainey explained in a scene with the trombonist, Cutler.

The blues began after the American Civil War and it quickly became an outlet for many African Americans because the discrimination did not end after their liberation from slavery. Rainey signified in the film that the blues provided a community for African Americans and reminded them that they were not alone.

Not only does the film bring attention to the blues’ cultural and historical significance to the Black community, but it also educates people on the legacy that African Americans started.

Without the blues, there would be no music genres like jazz, country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that many people listen to today.

Netflix's official film logo for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.
Netflix's official film logo for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Netflix

Besides the historical impact of the blues, the movie does a compelling job of evoking a way to empathize with the Black community. It stirs up thought-provoking beliefs that many people do not acknowledge on a day-to-day basis.

With Boseman’s astounding performance and Davis’ powerful yet graceful acting, the characters were truly able to portray the sentimental hardships of African Americans. It is clear why the two were nominated in the categories of Best Actress/Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for the 78th Golden Globe Awards.

The ending was a brilliant way to demonstrate an issue that continues to affect Black people today and truthfully, the film had a lot of powerful symbolism that can be considered educational moments to those who are non-Black.

The majority of the plot might have been fiction but the message is very much true to life.

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