Every now and then, a film emerges that equally entertains, disturbs, and evokes powerful emotions. This year, that film is indisputably “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Based on August Wilson’s 1984 play of the same name, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is directed by George C. Wolfe and stars Viola Davis, Coleman Domingo, and Chadwick Boseman in his final, riveting performance.
It’s a boiling hot day in 1927, and legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is gearing up to record an album at a white-owned Chicago studio. Decked out in fur, heavy makeup, and elaborate dresses, the headstrong Ma is fully aware of her star power — and she’s not afraid to make life difficult for her manager, Mr. Irvine (Jeremy Shamos), and the studio's owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).
Meanwhile, Ma’s band members — Levee, Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag — hang out outside the studio, waiting to record the album. The four men banter, argue, and reveal their individual personalities. It soon becomes clear that Levee, the horn player in the band, isn’t content with standing in the shadows, but hopes to one day write and record his own music.
It’s not long before tensions arise, resulting in a power struggle between Ma, her manager, and the band members.
In some of the film’s most powerful scenes, Ma insists her young nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), must voice the intro to her song, despite the reticence of her manager and band due to the teen’s stutter. It’s clear that Ma is the boss, and whatever she says goes.
In contrast, Levee becomes increasingly reckless and emotional as the other three band members attempt to maintain a professional environment. When he finally explodes, it’s devastating, both to his colleagues and his musical aspirations.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not a faith-based film; it’s rated R for sexual content, strong language, and brief violence. It includes content that is likely to offend Christian viewers.
Same-sex relationships are addressed. The real-life Ma Raney was a bisexual with an acknowledged lesbian relationship — a fact the film liberally examines. Ma Rainey both sings about her bisexuality and shows affection for her young girlfriend, Dussie Mae.
Fast-talking Levee frequently discusses his love for “loose” women. Ma Rainey’s dresses are very revealing, often exposing much of her cleavage.
Strong language is prevalent throughout the film, including frequent use of the n-word. In one particularly poignant scene, an angry Levee argues with God, referring to Him as a “motherf****r.” He also tells God, “kiss my a**.”
There is also some violence, including physical altercations between band members on two separate occasions. Difficult subjects including rape and racism are also discussed.
But the film, though secular, also wrestles with religion and examines the intricate role Christianity plays in African American culture. Cutler is a devout Christian who relies heavily on his faith, while Levee is an outspoken atheist. It becomes evident the latter views God as a “white man’s God” — one who cares little for black people.
In one scene, the two men spar over religion, with Cutler warning Levee against “blaspheming” God. Levee challenges him in response, asking where God was when his mother was violated by a group of white men. How, he wonders, can a good God allow bad things to happen? There’s no resolution, but watching Boseman — who was nearing his battle with cancer as he performed the scene — is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.
Interestingly, the film’s stars are all professing Christians who said they appreciated the chance to address the doubts, fears, and questions every Christian faces at some point in their Christian walk. It’s produced by Densel Washington, himself a devout Christian, who previously told The Christian Post that his faith guides his career.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a sobering reminder of the brevity of life. It’s an examination of the plight of African Americans in the 20th century, and, more specifically, the struggles of black musicians in the white recording industry. It’s a cautionary tale of how anger — if not properly handled — can lead to destruction. It’s also a story of perseverance, grit, and triumph.
Chadwick Boseman’s final act is heart-wrenching.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” hits Netflix on Dec 18. The film is rated R for sexual content, strong language, and brief violence.