Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is Moving, But…

Ma Rainey, her band and her nephew in a studio.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the style, the music, dialogue, the nuances of class and race jockeying for power, and the underlying thread of a pain that can never be released—this is filmmaking at its finest. Of the powerful, entrancing performances from Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and Viola Davis but Chadwick Boseman puts this film over the line, and could’ve launched it into greatness. This film should be an essential addition in any filmmaker course, for what it does right and where it failed—Viola Davis in a fat suit. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from a play by August Wilson and directed by George C. Wolfe, is about tensions rising with Ma Rainey and her band as they gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. The word tension doesn’t even begin to cover the intricacies of the conflict between the band members, or the range of conflicts they touch on. It’s always a challenge to have a film that primarily takes place in one space that has little to no action. Investment is essential for the film to hold the audience’s attention and, in order for that to happen, there has to be characters and conversation that does more than entertain but opens up wider conversations. It brings to mind films such as Hard Candy and 12 Angry Men

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom image of Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
So Much Superb Acting Crammed Into One Film

The acting is breathtaking. The camaraderie between bandmates, Cutler, Levee, Slow Drag and Toledo naturally flows between humor, ribbing and simmering resentments that soon rise to the surface, especially Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Between Levee’s “smile” and Toledo’s (Glynn Turman) “leftover” monologue it’s a tug of war between greatness, leaving both swaying into first place depending on our current feelings and sentiments. But neither does Colman Domingo’s Cutler fade into the brick and wood surroundings. He shines in every role he’s given and was a highlight of Fear the Walking Dead.   

Some people have the skill and talent to completely live and breath a character to the extent that you forget all their previous roles. Chadwick Boseman reminds us he has it—as though there were any doubt. From Black Panther to Da 5 Bloods to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick always delivers a knockout performance that not only shows the individuality and heart of the character, but the race of the character. Chadwick Boseman doesn’t shy from a role that deals with race. He understood that we can’t come together without an acknowledgement and understanding of what it means to be a Black person. 

Stop Casting Thin Women In Big Roles

While Viola Davis is phenomenal in her role as Ma Rainey, it doesn’t alter the fact this role should have gone to a big, Black woman rather than one adorning a fat suit for the role. There is no question that she does a memorable job; however, the continual hiring of people outside of a demographic to play the role for a film but have no experience living as that person is an issue. The more marginalized the demographic that is being overlooked, the more harmful this pattern is.  

Albeit this is acting—a kind of high level pretend—but this role could’ve been an opportunity for someone else. The argument that actresses/actors should be able to play any role is nonsensical when marginalized groups are limited to a particular role/opportunity and even that is then given to someone outside their demographic. You can’t tell someone they can only have “x”, consistently give “x” away, then get mad when people are upset. Scraps are scraps no matter what plate they’re served on.

Despite the amazing performances, this failing cannot be overlooked. Is Viola Davis great in the role? Yes. Is she the only one who could’ve played Ma Rainey? No. It’s 2020 (thankfully not for much longer) so let’s not hear anymore articles about actors being dressed in fat suits and how it makes them feel. Black people aren’t costumes. Indigineous people aren’t costumes. Disabled people aren’t costumes. Why is size an exception? Rhetorical. It isn’t. Never was. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom trailer from Netflix via Youtube

Feature photo cr. David Lee / Netflix

1 thought on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is Moving, But…”

  1. I agree that the role could have gone to someone though I’m not mad at Viola. I wish they would have given it to a singer. As an actor trained multidisciplinary, it’s unfortunate to lose a role to an actor who doesn’t have certain abilities required for a role. However, I do believe that from page to screen, this film is excellent and something I am happy to see brought to life in a cinematic way. I hope the trend of plays, especially Black plays, the backbone of American theater… the masses deserve to hear it. It would have been impressive if Viola gained the weight for the role.

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