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Film Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020)


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Is there any more proof required that talent managers only care about money and the skill their client is supposed to showcase, be it acting, singing or songwriting, more than the client’s wellbeing? Judy Garland, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston are some big names that can be used as examples. It was and still is a tough business for talents to win the fight within and remain sane. Then imagine how difficult it must’ve been for a black woman back in the 1920s.

Ma Rainey is the legendary “Mother of Blues” who comes to a little studio, in Chicago, to record the hit single “Black Bottom”. She is well established, is specific to her own style, and won’t let it get compromised. However, the real tension begins when trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) thinks that his version of “Black Bottom”, or the intro of the song is much better and more appealing to modern listeners. The heated discussion begins within and outside of the band that will lead to an emotional conclusion, with the drawing of a life-changing lesson that will reach you right through the big or small screen.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is, in a way, made like a play, focused on long dialogues with the camera capturing the necessary emotions of the characters. Ma does not hide her affection for women. Despite the society of the 1920s, she does not seem bothered by the taboo at all. She is powerful, but her power lies in her voice and the records she sells to have her ‘white’ manager, Irvin, run around like a servant. Levee, on the other hand, is a skilful musician who, right before Ma’s arrival, was showing off his new $10 pair of shoes that made him feel like a king. The pair of shoes that is yet to play a significant role in unveiling the deep trauma of a man who could never escape his own despair.

The film would not have worked if not for the deeply written speeches by August Wilson (who wrote the play with the same name) and directed by George C. Wolfe. It’s, however, the show of spectacular performances delivered by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Boseman, in particular, is powerful enough, almost like providing his own testament of acting that cannot be rewritten by anyone else. Sadly, it once again reminds us of the huge talent we have lost that is literally irreplaceable even for someone like me who has never been a Boseman fan but has always acknowledged his talent.

The beauty of the film is not only in its thoughtfulness or concept that provides food for thought. The costume and cinematography provide high contrast of an era with its black and white shades as well as the vivid colors that make it beautiful and scary at the same time. There are lots of stigma running in the storyline of the film. Mostly, it’s a fight between a man and a woman; what one believe must be done, and another one who must remain strong to stand their ground. The grounds that were broken and rebuilt and broke again over the decades, drawing an important conclusion – ignoring the problem does not solve it nor makes it disappear. But it clearly states that if one individual gets power, confidence and courage, he or she can deliver better results. This film shows both sides of it in the most profound way.

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