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„Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“ is all kinds of badass!

Netflix has another „Original“ film on offer and this one really depicts a true original. „Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“ has a LOT going on in it even though it is the cinematic depiction of only one very hot afternoon in the summer of 1927, Chicago.

By Riem Higazi

Viola Davis is hardly recognisable as the real-life pioneering musician Gertrude „Ma“ Rainey, a straight-talking and unapologetically confident woman who is at once kind and firm when it comes to reigning in her band. Davis’ Ma is seriously sweaty, her make-up runs, her clothes are ill-fitting and her demeanour suggests she is OVER it. Davis captures Ma Rainey’s real-life tenacity, her sheer force of will, to be recognised and respected for who she is and not what everyone else wants her to be.

Ma Rainey

Public Domain

Ma Rainey in 1917

Ma Rainey’s determination to be self-styled coupled with her powerful vocals and very personal interpretations of her songs, not to mention her undeniable sex appeal in voice and body, wasn’t exactly what society expected of women, not to mention black women, back in the late 1920s in America.

This very short documentary gives you an idea of what Ma Rainey was up against back then. Based on a 1982 play by August Wilson, directed by renown theater and film veteran George C. Wolfe, and produced by Denzel Washington, „Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“ is a captivating window to not just race relations in 1920s’ America but a look at the gender and sexuality rules at the time. Rules that Ma Rainey, in all her bawdy, no bullshit glory, broke and remolded.

While the performances all around are fantastic, the part of Levee, the talented and ambitious cornet player in the band backing Ma Rainey, as played by Chadwick Boseman in what would be his final film, definitely stands out.

First of all, Boseman actually learned how to play the trumpet for this role and the authenticity of his performance in just the playing-trumpet-scenes are breathtaking---the authenticity he brings to the pivotal role he plays when it comes to the character of Levee---like I wrote above—it’s a LOT but it’s contained and never show-boaty.

Chadwick Boseman passed away while the film was in post-production and his passionate performance may be his best and an Oscar nomination for him and one for Viola Davis seem likely.

I will be honest and say that during the first minutes of the film, whenever Boseman appeared, I did ONLY think of his untimely death and wondered how much padding was going on in his costumes because he really does look much frailer than King T’Challa, Boseman’s forever legendary Black Panther. A few minutes in to the movie though and I became immersed in the story of the film and not the story of its lead male actor.

Ma Rainey und Chadwick Boseman im Spielfilm


Aside from the sentimentality of witnessing a beloved actor’s last powerhouse performance and the Oscar buzz, when I was watching the film it occurred to me that the Body Positivity Movement owes a LOT to Ma Rainey.

„Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“ is beautiful. Its attention to dialogue and costuming detail, the pacing of the film, and of course the performances and oh yeah-the music! It’s not Viola Davis doing the song vocals in the film, it’s former Tina and Ike Turner backup singer Maxayn Lewis and her story that is film-worthy in itself. The man behind the score is Branford Marsalis and this is his account of how he pulled the music together (achtung—Alanis Morrisette and Nick Cave mentions!).

One more thing about Ma Rainey, the person and the film—she was bisexual and she wasn’t shy about it... this is touched on slightly in the movie. After seeing the film, I went into a little Ma Rainey research frenzy and this made me think, wow. Ma Rainey really was waaaaaay ahead of her time and the film depicting her may refer to her famous Black Bottom song but what it taught me was how badass she was.

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