Movie Analysis: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

With this month being Black History Month I thought it would be a great idea to watch a film that highlighted a black artist. Going into this movie I didn’t know much about the life or story of Ma Rainey, or that she was a real singer in the early 1900’s.

This early 1900’s blues film gives you a taste of what it was like to be a black artist in that time. Image courtesy of wabe.com.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or, “Black Bottom” was directed by George C. Wolfie and produced by Denzel Washington. This film was based off of a playwright by August Wilson, but was written for film by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Wilson is known to write plays based on the struggles of black people.

“During a recording session, tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”,” says a synopsis of the film on IMDB.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boesman as Levee. In this movie, the main focus is on the rivalry of the two as they are both trying to steal the spotlight from each other. Ma Rainey is portrayed as a strong woman who knows her worth and won’t tolerate being treated any less than what she’s worth. On the other hand, Levee is a charming trumpet player who is determined to make it big with his trumpet and a new band once he gets to the north. 

Although the film has only been out since Dec. 18 2020, it has already received 33 awards and  104 nominations including two Golden Globes. The two nominations were Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture- Drama for Viola Davis and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture- Drama for Chadwick Boseman. The movie is rated “R” for language, some sexual content and brief violence. 

This was Bosman last film before tragically dying in late August 2020. Image courtesy of azbigmedia.com.

Unfortunately, this was the last film that Chadwick Boesman was featured in due to his passing of colon cancer on Aug.t 20, 2020. Many of his co-stars didn’t know at the time, but he was actually undergoing cancer treatment while doing this film. Even though the movie is based on Ma Rainey, Viola Davis is only on screen for a total of 26 minutes and 14 seconds. This was also Davis’ second performance of a play written by Wilson. The first film was called “Fences”, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. 

The movie alone could be a little bit hard to follow due to it’s slow pacing, but after watching the documentary about it I understand it  more. This isn’t just a story about a singer recording an album, it’s about how hard black artists had to work at that time. 

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The documentary touched on something called the Great Migration, a movement after the Civil War where black people from the south moved up north to provide a better life for themselves. They were driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities. Black people from the south were told that the north would have good work, but the jobs were of low income and were very physically demanding. Even though the conditions weren’t in their favor, many black Americans still traveled north to find a better life for themselves. 

This message was very apparent throughout the film. Since they were recording a song in Chicago, the theme of a new future was very apparent in the group, especially for Levee. The best thing from this film was the performances by Davis and Boesman. The emotional performance of Boesman really reminded me how much talent he had especially since he has passed on. It’s so unfortunate that at the height of his career something so tragic and sudden happened to him. 

Over all, it’s a good watch if you want to learn more about what it was like to be a black artist in the 1900’s. 

Do you have any recommendations on what films I should look into next? Send your suggestions to [email protected]

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