Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Movie Information

In his final performance, the late Chadwick Boseman gives a towering performance alongside a comparably great Viola Davis in this adaptation of August Wilson's play.
Genre: Drama
Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo
Rated: R

What Ma wants, Ma gets — and she won’t take jive from anyone. That’s the fierce tone set from the start by two-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches) in his superbly crafted and impeccably acted screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Set in the mid-1920s, the film captures the challenges of racism and exploitation faced by Black entertainers in America as they attempted to achieve broader success without alienating the community that gave them their start. Opening with a strong vocal solo from Ma (Viola Davis), we quickly learn why she’s earned the moniker “Mother of the Blues.” Likewise evident is her volatile dynamic with her band’s up-and-coming trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), and in these early scenes, Wolfe excels at planting the seeds of discord.

Moving from the deep South of Georgia to the bustle of Chicago, we find Ma’s band awaiting both her and Levee’s arrival for a recording session at Hot Rhythm Records — a brief tour detour that will prove to be anything but brief. Levee arrives fashionably late, sporting a new pair of shoes purchased in part by gambling winnings from bandmate Cutler (Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could Talk). The trumpeter’s flashy entrance sparks a series of powerful monologues between the musicians, each of which offer poignant insights on the Black American experience.

Ma eventually gets there, along with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown, 42) and female companion Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige, White Boy Rick) in tow, making a dramatic fender-bender entrance just outside the studio. The ensuing argument with the driver of the other car and a police officer further showcases Ma’s brash prowess and sets the stage for a wild day of recording. Among the session’s numerous dramatically rich complications is Ma’s insistence that Sylvester perform the album’s intro, despite his debilitating speech impediment. Here and elsewhere, Davis is marvelous at channeling her character’s stubborn nature.

In Boseman’s final performance before cancer claimed his life in August, the Black Panther star is comparably masterful at conveying Levee’s cocky swagger and insistence that he’s developed a new musical sound that will bring him success with his own band. Under Wolfe’s direction, he and Davis realize their full potentials, and when Levee’s and Ma’s egos clash, one of the year’s best films fully hits its stride.

Available to stream via Netflix starting Dec. 18


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