Blues vs Jazz

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Taylor Paige, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos, Desan Brown, and Joshua Harto
Director: George C. Wolfe
Scriptwriter: Reben Santiago-Hedson
Composer: Branford Marsalis
Cinematography: Tobias Schliessler
Rating: R for profanity and themed material
Running Length: 93 Minutes 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Prom” are two rousing music films to end 2020 and begin 2021.  Both deal with issues of their time.  “Prom” is contemporary and concerns having a prom and bringing a date who is of the same gender. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is set in the 1920’s. There is distance within the musician’s group between blues and jazz, plus talk about low pay for black musicians. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey) and the late Chadwick Boseman (Levee) star. The problem is between singing blues or jazz and takes place during a single day in Chicago, 1927, during rehearsals and recording. Music forms a framework for acting and it sizzles.

This is adapted from a play by August Wilson.  The real Ma Rainey lived from 1899-1933 and was a recording artist of her time. Viola Davis sings one song, “Those Dogs of Mine” and vocals are then done by Maxayn Lewis. 

Ma Rainey has quite the voice and sings blues with her band in Chicago. The guys have been with her a long time and know how to deal with her temperament. Enter a new guy, Levee, who wants to have his own band and do jazz.  He has written music and wants Ma to listen and perhaps record, but she says no. This doesn’t stop him and his persistence, plus growing temperament, make the recording time longer and longer. There are breaks to get Ma her favorite cola, then another break while she insists her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, be on the recording to introduce her song. He can’t do this and there is take after take with no music, just practicing with Sylvester.  On a hot day, this is getting everyone’s nerves to fray. The piano player (Glynn Thurman from “Fargo”) tries to be the peacemaker. Then comes the knowledge that Levee wants to be with Ma’s protégé, Dussie May (Taylor Paige), to add more to the flame, plus, what Ma sees as condescending, is the attitude white management is giving her.  They want her talent, but not her, a black person.  You can see the boiling point for many things is about to occur. 

The line between black and white is not blurred here.  Perform on a stage before a white crowd and then leave out the back door. This was commonplace and some of the stories told as the musicians relax, are both humorous and uncomfortable. Viola Davis, as Ma Rainey, has center stage and transforms herself into the larger woman with the aid of clothing.  She has a quick temper and knows it and produces it when needed, just to show she is still on top of her game. When her popularity begins to drop. Ma knows, she is out the door.  On the other hand, another person with attitude that day is Levee, as played by the late Chadwick Boseman, he seems happy and light-hearted, but underneath there simmers a I-want-it-now attitude. Viola Davis takes her performance from speaking to her band to speaking to Levee to speaking to management to speaking to family, and each section demands a different persona. She does it well, as does Boseman, who starts to realize that things aren’t going his way and what to do about it? Everyone else forms a backdrop as a top star and a rising star begin to clash. Most of the action is within the walls of a studio, reflections of Wilson’s stage play. A few scenes are outside, such as a car ride, to break up the stage feeling. 

I liked the performances of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.  Davis uses her eyes to good effect, while Boseman uses his hands. Body language has its own story too tell.  Life is never easy for a creative person and “Black Bottom” shows this. First, getting attention for what you can do, and then holding back to prevent exploiting you. Those in-between are the content ones or background band, while the front people, the stars, show their talent.  “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a showcase of what life was like for black performers in 1927. The music is blues and reminiscent of a slow, hot summer day. On the other hand, the music Levee has written, is energetic and headed for the Flapper Era and beyond. Who is going to win this music war, blues or jazz---or is the stage large enough for two? Composer for "Ma Rainey" is Branford Marsalis.  Oscar nominations may just be calling here. 


Copyright 2021 Marie Asner