Director George C. Wolfe captures a heart-wrenching day in the life of the “Mother of Jazz” and her band members.
“All they want is my voice,” says Ma Rainey.
This stark statement made in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” echoes one of the film’s main components: the harsh manipulation of Black people by white people. As audiences watch incredible Black artists be appreciated only for their talent, they can’t help but be outraged by how their worth as fellow citizens and human beings is completely disregarded.
Netflix’s film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), is a lively and tragic tale of Black history and the consequences of long-standing injustice. Adapted from August Wilson’s 1984 Broadway play of the same name, director George C. Wolfe prioritizes the story’s important message while also taking a fresh approach with an alternate ending and meaningful cinematography.
Based on a true story, this film uses a fictionalized day-in-the-life plot for the personification of real-life Ma Rainey. The truth of the story mainly resides in the characteristics of Ma and her glorious career in jazz, whereas the fiction comes from the accompanying characters.
Woven throughout the film are important themes, one of which lies in this quote by Toledo, the band’s wise piano player who says, “We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him… We done sold who we are in order to become someone else. We’s imitation white men.”
Though disagreement and tension result from Toledo’s statement, the quotation serves as an excellent example showcasing the dialogue, driving conflict and themes explored within the film.
Ma Rainey knows the reason white people value her is because of her musical gift. That gift is a financial gain for them, and in turn, she makes it known that she wants to be treated with ultimate respect, as any phenomenal music talent — regardless of color — should be treated.
When Ma asks for a Coca-cola after being an hour late to the recording session, she gets the ice-cold Coca-cola. Would this be the case if she wasn’t known for her talent? Certainly not.
Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actress, Viola Davis, takes center stage as the edgy, bold and unapologetic character, Ma Rainey. Davis is nearly unrecognizable because her costume features extra padding, filling out her figure. There is still one recognizable quality about Davis in the film: her ability to deliver yet another award-worthy performance, despite her character’s “greasepaint” under the eyes.
The late Chadwick Boseman plays the ambitious trumpet-playing male lead. Just like Davis, it’s a stunning performance. Boseman has a monologue explaining his backstory near the beginning of Act II — where white men defiled his mother and forced him to watch. It might be one of the cinema’s most excellently delivered monologues of all time.
Davis and Boseman’s performances alone are more than enough to make this a standout film. However, Wilson’s decision to let the camera linger during dramatic scenes has an immeasurable impact. By allowing the actors to linger on screen, audiences are forced to feel the characters’ emotions for long periods of time. Though it may be uncomfortable, those watching have no choice but to feel the weight of these scenes.
This is a must-see movie this Black History Month. Though it’s emmaculate and creative storytelling it portrays a gripping tale from a Black historical perspective.
Stream Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) on Netflix now.