- Movie Rating -

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

| January 1, 2021

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to go to movie theaters nor film festivals.  So now, with the help of award-season screeners, this month I am catching up.

Of all the misfit circumstances wrought by the troubling year of 2020, one of the cruelest was the unexpected farewell of Chadwick Boseman.  His unexpected death last August from a publicly-unknown battle with Stage IV colon cancer hit all of us like a hammer blow (it was so devastating that it fueled initial suspicions of possible fake news), but when it sank in, it was hard to take.  Like James Dean, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and River Phoenix before him, Boseman represented the great promise of a brilliant career, and actor with many notes left to play; many songs left to sing.  We’ll never hear that song, but we have his gifts still with us to remember him.

Boseman had already proved himself a movie star with Black Panther three years ago but his real acting chops found the light of day in two very high profile pictures that, based on my half-assed predictions, will net him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor when they are announced on March 15th.  The supporting nod will be for his performance as “Stormin” Norman Earl Holloway, the key figure at the center of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, but his Best Actor nod will come for the Netflix movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The latter is where I think his award will come from, a career defining performance that allows him the chance to breathe as an actor and to really prove what he could do.  Based on the best of August Wilson’s “Philadelphia Cycle”, the film is less about the titular Ma Rainey then about Levee (Boseman), a struggling young trumpet player in 1920s Chicago trumpet player whose very soul is itching to make a mark on the world.  Levee wants to play his own notes his own way, but the world of contemporary jazz has its own rule, especially when he ends up playing on a recording of the legendary Ma Rainey (played in another brilliant performance by Viola Davis.

Taking place over the course of a single day, Levee is an outlier to those who know better, those who know that to work with Ma is to be in service to Ma.  She is a heavyweight who is demanding and rewarding to those who follow her commands.  At present she is making a recording in a small music studio and what Ma wants, Ma gets, and it is with the force of her being that she gets it.  That puts her in a clash with Levee whose spirit just wants to soar.  He’ll learn.

As with all of Wilson’s work, this one is full of great reams of dialogue, not just design to move the plot forward (Hello, Tenet!) but to give us a sense of who the characters are and what they have planned in the wide world.  Levee has two fine monologues in the film, both revealing what he knows, but also revealing how much he still has to learn.  His attitudes and his aspirations are as colorful as the yellow shoes on his feet and his youth bodes and answer to every question.

There is always a spark of life in Wilson’s work, and what makes this and Fences so brilliant is that they both brim with a sense of how people function, how they work, in particular African-Americans at this point in time.  Movies during the 20s through the 60 relegated blacks to miniscule servant roles, but filming Wilson’s work is a way of correcting this.  We get to know people who are subjugated, shut out, and shut down, and we get to meet someone like Ma Rainey whose entire persona is a defiance of the times in which she was living.  She has reached the peak at which she has, through force of personality, commanded a measure of respect that the social climate of the times seems designed to reject.  And through Levee, we see a young man who yearns for that kind of freedom and respect.

Boseman’s performance is the best of the entire year, and it is a joy that we have it to remember him by, not just as a reminder of what we lost but a reminder of what we had.  He was given a chance to play a fully-realized soul, a young man on his way up who was just itching to measure the world with his feet.



About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized