Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is pure art, just as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
More than its gorgeous costumes and shots of a bustling 1927 Chicago, though, the film shows how Black folks of the time—and even today—navigate the power struggles that white structures create: through laughter, through art, through masked strategies.
The film adaptation of the August Wilson play of the same name is unsurprisingly a cinematic masterpiece with a commanding Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, a dancing and singing Chadwick Boseman (in his final role) as her trumpet player Levee, and a stellar cast of other co-stars—all wrapped up in the working city.
Ma Rainey is part of Wilson’s series known as The American Century Cycle, a set of ten plays chronicling African American life in different decades, and is the only play in the series that features a historical figure. A decade after Wilson’s death in 2005, his estate entrusted Denzel Washington to bring the plays to life. His work on Ma Rainey as one of its producers comes on the heels of the acclaimed adaptation of Fences, in which he and Viola Davis both starred.
Ma Rainey is also the only play in the series set in Chicago. In 1927, Chicago was just eight years removed from the Chicago race riot of 1919, and the Great Migration of Black people moving to northern cities like Chicago had been happening for about a decade. Although the structures of white supremacy in Chicago looked different from those in the south, they were still very much prevalent, and that tension is what the film’s characters walk into when they arrive in the city for a recording session.
Most of the film takes place in Hot Rhythms Recording, run by a white man named Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). We get to know the band while waiting on Ma Rainey to arrive to the studio: Cutler (Colman Domingo) is Ma’s trustworthy band leader and trombonist who is tasked with keeping everyone in line, Toledo (Glynn Turman) is the older piano player who wants Black people to look beyond just having fun, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) is a quiet bassist, and Levee has his sights set on being a star himself.
In a small room in the basement of a studio, the men tell stories and joke and poke fun at each other, especially the ambitious Levee who continues to talk about the new shoes he just spent a week’s worth of pay on, how big of a star he’ll be, how he’ll get his own band, and how Sturdyvant, the studio owner, wants some of his songs—songs he says are so good that he can “set them down in the people’s lap.”
Yet, there’s trauma and hurt behind Levee and his strong desire to be famous—just as famous as Ma with his own band and his own records. In this role, Chadwick Boseman shines with strong monologues and a fierceness that often turns into aggression. Levee’s back and forth of emotions fail to mask the pain that drives him. Instead of pushing him to rise, the tension causes him to snap, the catalyst for an eventual breakdown.
How Levee handles his disappointments, caused by the systems that white power allows, shows how powerless he ultimately feels. The very people who want better for Levee end up being the recipients of his rage. In this case, it’s his band members: fellow Black men who are also fighting the very same structural inequities that he is facing. Levee may be a young man, but he reverts to a childlike temperament when confronted with news he doesn’t like—the very real trauma from his youth taking a toll on his current actions.
As a bona fide star, Ma is having her own struggles, although initially, she seems to transcend limitations placed on her at the time as a Black queer woman. She has her own car, and when her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) gets into a car accident pulling up to the studio, Sturdyvant is able to pay the policeman to make it go away. She is openly affectionate with her young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). And, even though she was over an hour late for her recording session, she still stops recording until she can get the Coke she was promised and also forces her nephew’s way into a song.
But Ma knows that everything goes her way as long as white people want something from her. She comments that even her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) has never invited her to his house unless it was to sing. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she says. “All they want is my voice.” So until they get what they want, she decides, she’s going to force them to treat her exactly how she wants to be treated.
In her role, Viola Davis shines, her presence dominating the screen. But Davis also ensures we get a peek behind Ma’s veil. It is hard work being a boss, making demands and sticking to them. And we see the rare times where almost everyone leaves the room and Ma relaxes, her exhaustion setting in before she has to turn back on the intensity and again take control of the room. Without this control, Ma knows she can be taken advantage of, that she can drown under the pressure of a system set up for people like her to fail, that once she loses that control, she can’t get it back.
Unlike the much younger Levee, Ma knows and understands that when it comes to the entertainment industry—infamously known for using and abusing Black talent—the game is the game. The difference is how you play it. v