Last Friday, Netflix premiered George C. Wolfe’s film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final role. The film, based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, follows the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band as they meet for a recording session on a hot summer day in 1927 Chicago. Power sits at the root of the film and in its characters’ minds, as Ma especially dances along the tightrope between having power and watching it all fade away.
The real-life Ma Rainey was known for her bold personality, and the film portrays just that. She insists that she cannot start recording until she drinks a Coca-Cola, causing a long delay in the recording process. This is not the behavior of a diva; Ma is a queer Black woman living in the 1920s who knows how to stand up for power, dignity, and respect. Her white manager, she says, is exploiting her for her voice. She is well-aware that he and the white producer don’t care about her or her music, and are not willing to put Black art before commercial success. Meanwhile, fictional character Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, struggles with his own musical ambitions in the face of racism. He carries rage, trauma, and a yearning for the spotlight that puts him in direct conflict with Ma.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an exceptionally engaging film that focuses on the white exploitation of Black culture and art, something that is well-documented throughout history and remains a problem today. With brilliant performances by Davis and Boseman, this is a film you don’t want to miss.
Take Action! One, two, you know what to do! Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available for streaming now on Netflix. It is a must-watch for the complex story and Boseman’s final, masterly performance — a performance that is a gift to witness.