Friday, December 18, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Obliged to hold a recording session of some of her greatest hits in Chicago, Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) takes a break from her packed touring schedule and heads north along with her band. Her mere presence stirs the dynamics between the African American communities of the north and the south, while her demands also result in tensions running high at the recording studio. It does not help that upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) keeps fanning the flames by asserting his dominance and trying to outmaneuver not just his bandmates, but even Ma Rainey herself. As day turns into night and songs eventually get immortalized on vinyl, the group reflects on their individual experiences in the music scene of 1920’s America, from racially charged issues all the way to high ambitions and making it big in an industry that only cares about the money their talent can rake in.

The recurring question in my head while watching this was: Is this based on a play? The long monologues and the few claustrophobic sets seem to point out to a theater origin. Lo and behold, I got my answer as the credits rolled: “Based on a play by August Wilson”. That explains it. Such material is usually meant as a vehicle for acting nominations, and Ma Rainey is already a shoo-in with two, one each for Davis and Boseman. As to which categories they will be nominated in is quite tricky to determine. In the end you just end up asking, who is supporting whom?

For a film named after Ma Rainey herself, it is odd that she appears far less than her trumpeter, which begs the question: Is Davis the lead here or just supporting, despite the movie’s title carrying her name? Nonetheless, Davis’ commanding presence just steals all the scenes she is in. One part of you wants to hate on Ma for being such a demanding diva. On the other hand, there’s also that voice in your head saying, hey, she deserves to be a primadonna, if only to get back at the exploitative industry she ended up being a part of.

It is Boseman who gets to shine in what will be considered as his last role before his untimely death. Taking this aspect into consideration, the story revolves more around his character rather than Ma’s. Heck, we even get to know more about Levee’s background and motivations than Ma’s herself. If anything, this film is deserving as Boseman’s swan song. For most of us who are not familiar with his work outside Marvel’s big blockbusters, this is both a good introduction and a bittersweet goodbye to him and his craft.

Powerhouse performances aside, the film is as educational as it can be when it comes to the issue of race in America. While it is easier to keep oneself informed in this day and age through information overflow, the bygone decades seem so far detached. Surely we can read about such social movements and racial dynamics in books, but it is through film and theater that we get to feel what we already got to know in theory through literature. The film does become a bit too heavy-laden with talk sometimes, but they serve as good motivators for further research down the line.

The shock ending further accentuates the material’s theater origins while staying true to its thesis. For someone who has not seen the onstage version, one can only imagine how emotionally impactful that ending could be in an intimate theater where you get to witness it live. All in all, it is a decent film adaptation, even though its appeal might not be for everyone to appreciate. Still a rare Netflix gem, nevertheless.

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